Joe Higgins exposes highlighted grievous exploitation of immigrant workers

Joe Higgins tackles the government about the blatant exploitation of migrant workers employed by Gamma - a multinational construction company which has had a number of local authority / state contracts. Workers have been paid as little as 2/3 euro an hour and many are forced to live on site. The following is the records from the Dail minutes.

Dáil Éireann – Leaders’ Questions – 8th February 2005

Joe Higgins (Socialist Party): Many recent reports in the media have highlighted grievous exploitation of immigrant workers. In the construction industry SIPTU officials have found such exploitation. Recently the bricklayers union, BATU, was so concerned that it met the Polish and Lithuanian ambassadors to highlight a gross abuse of their nationals. I wish to raise, in particular, one major scandal of immigrant worker exploitation of massive proportions. There is a major foreign-based multinational construction company employing approximately 10,000 people, 2,000 approximately in this State, which has secured massive local authority and State contracts here. This company imports workers from their home base, who do not speak English, controls their passports and work permits, accommodates them often in company barracks, demands an extent of hours worked that can only be called grotesque and, incredibly, pays unskilled construction workers between €2 and €3 per hour, basic pay and skilled workers somewhere over €3 an hour. In short, this is a modern version of bonded labour. The instigator is Turkish-based Gama Construction Ireland Limited.

The national minimum wage is €7 an hour. The registered employment agreement for the lowest paid operative in construction is €12.96 an hour. This case is a national scandal financed by extensive public funding. I call on the Taoiseach to ask the Minister and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, as a matter of priority, to order an immediate investigation into Gama Construction and its pay and work practices. Will its records be demanded? Will the Taoiseach ensure that interviews are conducted with workers out of the way of company pressure? Will he ensure the Department sees that no worker is victimised as a result of this investigation and if Gama Construction should act to send workers home, a method used by these companies, those workers are sheltered and protected? I will ask SIPTU, to whom the company signed up some of its workers as a cover, to do so. Companies like Gama Construction not only exploit immigrant workers but undermine wages and conditions for all workers and, through crooked means, they underbid other companies who pay the full rate. This is a serious matter.

The Taoiseach: I reiterate that every worker is entitled to the full protection of the law. The workers referred to by the Deputy are entitled to full legislative protection. The inspectorate of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment can apply the full powers and rigours of the law to inspect the records and investigate any breaches. I am aware of some other cases where trade unions have asked the Department to investigate and this has been fully carried out. The Deputy has referred to the company by name. The Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment is in the House and will raise the matter of inspection with his departmental officials. Legislation to deal with such cases is pending. Any information on the case will be followed up. The key point is that every worker is entitled to the full protection of the law. The minimum rate of pay has been agreed through the Labour Court and employers have an obligation under the law to pay that rate. The inspectorate implements the law and investigates any employer in breach of the law.

J. Higgins: As the Taoiseach stated, the workers have entitlements. However, these workers are vulnerable and afraid. That is why they need the security of knowing that any attempted victimisation will be resisted. I welcome the Taoiseach's undertaking that the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment will take action. We will make every information available to the inspectors. There should be many more than 21 of them, by the way.

This company has done work for local authorities. It is building the Ennis bypass and built the Ballincollig bypasses and was proud of the fact that it completed the work six months ahead of schedule. That is easy when using a bonded labour force working eleven or 12 hours a day with two Sundays off in a month. The company can underbid because of these rates of pay.

I want the Minister to take personal charge along with the Secretary General of the Department because it is a serious allegation. This is not a fly-by-night operation from the boot of a car. This is a major company financed by major State public contracts. I will therefore keep a close eye on it. The rights of immigrant workers are paramount, as are the rights of Irish workers who are undermined by this.

An Ceann Comhairle (Chair): I advise the Deputy that it is not appropriate to name a company in the House when it is not here to defend itself.

J. Higgins: It is entirely appropriate because-----

An Ceann Comhairle: No, Deputy, it is not. It is a long-standing precedent in this House.

J. Higgins: -----it takes advantage of its power over vulnerable workers to exploit them. I will not allow that to happen.

An Ceann Comhairle: There can be no argument about it. The Chair has ruled.

The Taoiseach: I do not know if Deputy Higgins or others have made a complaint to the labour inspectorate about the particular company. The Minister will raise the matter with the inspectorate. I note the Deputy has said he will make the information available to the inspectorate and this will be helpful. I reiterate that every worker in this country is entitled to the protection of labour law. This has been enforced in many cases. Members may remember a case three years ago where the Department took firm and positive action to uphold the rights of the workers who were from one of the now member states, then an applicant country. The same examination will take place in this case.

Earlier articles by Joe Higgins, Socialist TD
Anti-racism articles by the SP



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