Monday, 30 May 2005

Ireland's new foreign workers

by John Redmond (Free-lance journalist)

Irish Trade Unions are struggling to cope with the volume of complaints they are receiving from East European migrant workers regarding their treatment by Irish employers, says Eric Fleming, an organiser with Ireland’s largest trade union,SIPTU.

Some 80,000 East European workers have come to Ireland since May Day 2004, when the EU went from 15 to 25 Members. This is about 4 percent of the existing Irish workforce and is not that far short of the 90,000 moving to the UK, even though the UK population is 15 times that of Ireland. This is because of the booming Irish labour market, where the official unemployment rate is 4%. That contrasts wth Poland’s rate of 20%.

Ireland, Britain and Sweden have followed an “open door” policy from Day One of EU enlargement and have permitted workers from the 10 new EU countries to take up jobs freely, in contrast to the other countries of the original EU 15, which have decided to maintain labour controls for up to seven years.

The scandal of how Turkish workers from outside the EU hace been treated by the Turkish giant Gama Construction has been big news in Ireland recently. Gama is involved in major Irish construction projects such as power stations, road building and local authority housing. Its 1000 or so Turkish workers were paid much less than the Irish hourly minimum wage rate and were made to work grotesquely long hours, while the rest of their money was paid into bank accounts in Holland which the workers knew nothing about. A question mark hangs over what Gama Construction intended doing with that money.

Irish Socialist MP Joe Higgins exposed the matter in the Irish Parliament. SIPTU then took it up, led the Gama workers in demonstrations where they shouted slogans in Turkish at the gates of the Parliament, and provided them with food when Gama threatened to stop paying for their lodgings. Higgins says: “The trade union movement as a whole has been slow to wake up to the dangers posed by this new situation of abuse of migrant workers.”

Workers recruited abroad who do not know English find it hard to know their rights in a country that is foreign to them. They are wide open to being tricked by bad employers and may cooperate unknowingly in working for less than the local minimum wage or with poorer health and safety conditions. Abuse of foreign workers occurs mainly in the construction, domestic and agricultural industries, where it is sometimes linked to issues of acccommodation, where many foreign workers live at their place of work either in the house or in mobile homes on site, so that if they leave their job they are effectively homeless.

Complaints have rocketed to Ireland’s Labour Inspectorate, whose job it is to enforce the minimum hourly wage rate and basic standards of health and safety. One response is more inspectors. “We have 50 dog wardens in this country paid by the State to look after aninal rights”, said SIPTU’s Eric Fleming, “but there are still only 21 labour inspectors.”

Inspectors can only enforce legal minimum standards. They can do nothing to prevent downward pressure on the wages of workers above the minimum. Complants are now rising from Irish painters, electricians and other skilled trades at how much harder it is to get jobs on building sites at the previous regular wage rates, as skilled workers from the new EU countries undercut local labour. Most immigrant workers have nothing to do with trade unions, which is one reason Irish employers are busy recruiting them these days.