Article from the Mar. 2005 issue of the Socialist
newspaper of the Socialist Party, Irish section of the CWI
Life for migrant workers in Northern Ireland
Exploitation of migrants in Omagh
by Kevin Henry
Omagh Socialist Youth
OMAGH SOCIALIST Youth have been actively campaigning on the issue of racism, particularly on the rights of migrant workers. We have done this along with Youth Against Racism (YAR) who have built a strong base of support among school students in the town.
The conditions in which migrant workers are forced to live show the scandalous exploitation that is taking place. Employers bring them here under contracts that force them to live in accommodation they provide. There are cases of 6-12 workers living in two bed room ex-council houses - while, at the same time, the council is knocking down 60 houses.
As well as stalls on the issue, we have intervened in a number of local meetings arguing a socialist case to end this exploitation. One was a meeting called by the Omagh Ethnic Minority Group and Omagh Trades Council to discuss the conditions of migrant workers. Another was organised by local schools. Six YAR members intervened distributing leaflets and taking part in the discussions. This included a workshop organised by a religious nun where our message about what causes racism and how to deal with it was very different from what she said. The nun suggested that racism is part of human nature, something we have to learn to control. However, we explained that racism is stirred up by the ruling class to divert anger away from the capitalist system itself.
Defending the rights of migrant workers
by Ciaran Mulholland
IN RECENT years, thousands of migrant workers have arrived in Northern Ireland-up to 25,000 by some accounts. They have come from countries such as Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, and Portugal seeking work. The jobs they get are generally those that pay the worst and have the worst conditions. They work in pork and poultry processing factories in Dungannon, pick mushrooms in South Armagh and process fish in Kilkeel.
Even those with skills are generally paid the minimum wage. Sometimes even that isn't on offer-in 2002 it was revealed that mushroom pickers were being paid only £1.20 an hour.
As well as being exploited by employers, many migrant workers have been subjected to racist abuse and even physical attack. Whilst only a minority of local people have racist attitudes and most welcome the new arrivals, it is important to resolutely take up these issues.
The question is how best to protect the rights of these workers and how best to counter racist attacks.
Clearly migrant workers can no more rely on politicians from the main parties than can anyone else. A migrant support group in Dungannon shows the way forward. It has been established by the TGWU and STEP, an umbrella group for local community groups. Its organiser is John McLaughlin, a long standing member of the Socialist Party.
John has been an activist in local pork and poultry processing factories for nearly 20 years. At the present time, he is the chair of the TGWU branch that organises a number of factories in Dungannon and is a member of the TGWU National Poultry Workers Committee. As a trade union activist, John recognised at an early stage that something needed to be done to help migrant workers, but also realised that the initiative must come through the labour movement.
"Hundreds of Portuguese workers have arrived in Dungannon over recent years. Many are from Portugal's ex-colonies. They are not here temporarily any longer, but are settling in the town. They are living in all the local estates and are sending their children to the local schools. "We established our project to ensure they got their rights. We explain to workers what their employment and benefit rights are to try to prevent the worst exploitation at work. We encourage the workers to join the TGWU and 300 have. That means they are organised together with local workers. "Employers are using migrant workers as cheap labour to try to undermine conditions and drive down wages generally. The way to stop this is not by attacking migrants, but by campaigning with them to achieve the same wages and rights as other workers.
"I don't think that there is a similar project anywhere else in Ireland or in Scotland, England or Wales."These workers are now part of the local community. They should register to vote and use their vote. The problem is who would they vote for? The parties on Dungannon District Council don't represent the interests of local working people so they will not be able to represent migrant workers either.
"We considered putting up a T & G activist in the local elections but it doesn't look like it will come together. The next time around we must make sure that there is a real alternative. Dungannon has a labour/socialist tradition. In the 1960's and 1970's Jack Hazzard, of the Post Office Workers Union and the old Northern Ireland Labour Party represented that tradition on the Council. We want to reclaim that seat next time around.
"The STEP project shows the way forward. The employers want a two-tier, "flexible" workforce that helps them maximise their profits and undermines union organisation. Recruiting migrant workers to a union branch that is prepared to fight on their behalf means it is possible to build a common struggle against this super exploitation and for a living wage and decent conditions for all workers.
THE FULL horror of life for migrant workers is illustrated by the shocking story of Oksana Sukhanova from the Ukraine. Twenty-three year old Oksana was found freezing on the streets of Coleraine over Christmas. She lost both her legs to frostbite and is now learning to walk on artificial legs. Oksana was employed by McKeown's poultry factory in Rasharkin. They laid her off and she ended up homeless. The company defends their actions and says they did nothing wrong. By the standards of companies in these circumstances they may have acted "correctly" but that is hardly the point. Workers such as Oksana, from outside the European Union, are brought here on permits by employers or agents. They are often provided with accommodation by the employer/agent. If they lose their job they lose everything, they have no rights. That is why Oksana ended up on the streets and that is the situation she will face again when she leaves hospital.
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