Article from the October 2005 issue of the Socialist
newspaper of the Socialist Party, Irish section of the CWI
Exploitation of migrant workers
UNIONS MUST ACT!
By Susan Fitzgerald
MIGRANT WORKERS now make up 7% of the workforce in Ireland, numbering in excess of 137,000 with 70% working in low paid employment. Workers, in the main from Eastern Europe but also from Asia, are lured to Ireland by advertisements seeking "ambitious people" who would like to earn "several times" what they currently earn in their field of work. Often the truth is very different.
One worker who was hired in India, where the average wage is less than Û100 per month, to work in a restaurant in Galway was told he would be paid over Û1000 a month. It was a different story once he got here. "The day I arrived he [the employer] took my passport and told me that he could not afford Û1000 a month, so I would have to work for Û80 per week. I also had to work for over 70 hours, starting at 11am and finishing after midnight. I had one day off a week."
Workers are often forced to fork out for their permits, slum accommodation and other extras that employers pile on and illegally deduct from their wages. A lot of migrant workers report that they receive no pay slips. Arek (not his real name), a Polish construction worker said, "he [the employer] told us that only Irish workers needed pay slips. I do not know if I am working legally or illegally but I am afraid I will anger him if I ask".
An increase in claims from migrant workers under the Payment of Wages Act has led to a record level of referrals to the Labour Relations Commission in recent years. But the vast majority of abuses still go unchecked. Many migrant workers are isolated due to language barriers and fear of being sacked or victimised by employers. Others are effectively in a bonded labour arrangement due to the fact that employers still hold work permits. This means that despite their conditions or pay, workers in this situation cannot change jobs.
Nine months after the GAMA scandal hit the headlines around the country, the construction industry remains a hot bed of exploitation for many migrant workers. A TEEU shop steward I spoke to said he came across a young Romanian labourer on site who told him he had been made work all day Sunday for just Û30. Union organisers in the Building and Allied Trades' Union recently uncovered two Polish companies, Noris Poland and Granite who were paying less than half the minimum industry rate to Polish stone workers who were working on developments in the Dublin Docklands.
Employers are attempting to not only brutally exploit migrant workers but also to use them to drive down the pay and conditions of Irish workers. When this is not enough, they will attempt the wholesale smashing of decently paid trade union jobs, replacing them with low paid migrant workers as they are trying to do in Irish Ferries.
Irish Ferries was also in the news not too long ago over the case of Filipino hairdresser and beautician Salvacion Orge who worked 12 hour shifts without breaks, seven days a week on the Isle of Innishmore for just Û1.08 per hour. This situation was brought to light by Irish union members on the ship who brought the matter to the attention of their union, SIPTU, along with collecting over Û1,000 for Salvacion while her case was being dealt with.
There are many examples where rank and file union members have taken action to protect and assist migrant workers. Ultimately the responsibility to ensure that migrant workers are not used either as slave labour or to drive down the conditions of Irish workers falls to the trade union movement. Failure to do so would have dire consequences for Irish and migrant workers alike.
SIPTU shop steward and Socialist Party Councillor Clare Daly recently assisted a young Slovakian airport worker who had previously worked for the fast food chain Abrakebabra in Dublin. When she left Abrakebabra she was owed approximately Euro180 for four days work which the manager refused to pay her. Clare's intervention resulted in the company having to pay the young worker the E180 plus E400 for unpaid holidays that she did not know she was entitled to.