Article from the October 2005 issue of the Socialist
newspaper of the Socialist Party, Irish section of the CWI

Unions must act to

Stop slave labour at Irish Ferries

By Kevin McLoughlin
543 JOBS to be slashed and replaced with super exploited migrant labour with deplorable pay and conditions. The attack by Irish Ferries is a warning of what the future holds for workers generally if the trade unions continue to refuse to struggle to defend workers' rights.

Eamonn Rothwell, the Chief Executive of ICG, the owner of Irish Ferries, says the company wanted to "give democracy a chance" by giving the workers a choice between keeping their jobs with wages at a fraction of what they were or accept "voluntary" redundancy lump sums! IBEC backed up Irish Ferries saying "most reasonable people" would agree that it would be better to have "several hundred moderately paid jobs, than no jobs".

Moderately paid job means working 84 hour weeks at E3.50 an hour! Giving out about the minimum wage level, IBEC went on to say that the issues of wage costs and competitiveness must be addressed otherwise there will be a hemorrhaging of jobs in Ireland. In reality IBEC is indicating that a serious offensive against wages and conditions is beginning, not only in private industry but in the public sector as well. Such wages and conditions would condemn people into extreme poverty, given conditions in Ireland.

In comparison to the bosses, workers only got the crumbs from the table over the last ten years. Companies made huge profits off workers' record productivity but now because the profit system is facing crisis and competition amongst capitalist companies and countries is intensifying, they want to maintain their profits by slashing the wages and conditions of workers. The government is part of this attack and its statements of concern are disgusting. Workers and the trade unions are about to feel the impact of heavy blows as the bosses begin to put the boot in.

These events will challenge the rotten policy of "social partnership", which always means that workers' rights are subordinated to profit maximisation. It is not good enough for the trade union leaders, who helped create the momentum for globalisation, to now demand that the government take action against the likes of Irish Ferries. The unions must take action here and in turn must link up with workers in other countries in a united effort to resist wage competition and to defend workers' rights.

Over the last couple of weeks, SIPTU tried to cut across the redundancy package because it represented a serious blow to the status of the union. They put pressure on the government, to put pressure on IBEC, to put pressure on Irish Ferries. The high initial take up of the redundancy packages reflected that workers had little confidence in either SIPTU or the Seaman's Union of Ireland, given their poor record and lack of leadership in defending conditions over years.

While Irish Ferries are attending the Labour Court talks, they remain committed to their proposals. Nothing short of the scrapping of the proposals should be acceptable to the unions. Any jobs that are vacant by voluntary redundancy must be replaced by direct labour on the same wages and conditions that currently exist. A "compromise" where some experienced officers remain on current conditions but with a new "yellow pack" staff, or something similar should be rejected.

Union leaders have bemoaned how the laws of the land don't stop this kind of thing. We can expect nothing more from laws that are framed and used for the benefit of business. The root of the problem is organising an economy based on profiteering rather than people's needs. But the trade union leadership's support for the dictates of the capitalist market has helped create the nightmare scenario of "A race to the bottom". Unless Irish Ferries pull back completely, industrial action should be organised. There would be huge public support for a struggle to defend proper jobs, wages and conditions at Irish Ferries.

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