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

Joe Higgins Column - Racism, National Question.

I WAS surprised to receive a phone call a few weeks ago from the newspaper group that published Daily Ireland and the Andersontown News. It was explained to me that they held an annual awards event and wanted to present me with an award for fighting for the rights of migrant workers.

Generally, we're not very big into occasions like this but I resolved that it would be an opportunity to highlight the very serious issue of migrant worker exploitation, North and South, and the approach that the Socialist Party advocates to combat this. Having played a key role in outlining the scandal of exploitation in GAMA Construction and in standing shoulder to shoulder with the Turkish workers in their fight for justice, Socialist Party activists have credibility and experience in fighting the abuse of migrant workers.

Despite the many instances of exploitation, not least the blatant attempt by Irish Ferries to sack permanent workers on established trade union pay rates and conditions to be replaced by "semi-bonded" labour, I was still shocked when a journalist rang me at the beginning of November with the story of the Latvian periwinkle pickers abandoned in winter conditions on an uninhabited speck of an island off the coast of North County Dublin. Immediately the tragic deaths of 21 Chinese cockle pickers in Morecambe Bay, England, came to mind.

It is hard to fathom the greed that drives some bosses to abuse vulnerable migrant workers in the many ways that have recently been exposed. This is now a serious threat to the very idea of permanent jobs with decent wages and safe, healthy working conditions. That is why the Socialist Party has been calling very loudly on the trade union movement to lead a major campaign to recruit migrant workers to the unions and to use its industrial power to cripple exploitative employers. By recruiting migrant workers into the unions we can also guard against the development of tensions and divisions between Irish and migrant workers which can be cultivated by employers and politicians.

The lesson of the GAMA struggle is that migrant workers can strike effectively to secure their entitlements and in the process to win wide support from other trade unionists and working class people generally. It also puts the government under pressure even though we know how at every turn the Fianna Fail/ Progressive Democrat cabal promotes the neo-liberal agenda of super profits at the expense of working people.

The Work Permits Bill currently before the Dail makes it very clear that this government is to give major preference to migrant workers who could command a wage of Euro 60,000 or more. Clearly the idea here is to bleed poor countries of professionals and use them in the Irish economy without having had the expense of training them. However, the vast majority of migrant workers can never hope to earn even close to that figure and are in the main trapped in a cycle of poverty.

Another thought that came to mind concerning the Belfast awards occasion is the need to link vehement opposition to exploitation of migrant workers in the North with the need to champion and actively work for the unity of workers, Catholic and Protestant. In fact, I took the opportunity during a recent debate on Northern Ireland in the Dail to restate the unique position of the Socialist Party on the resolution of the national question. We can look neither to neo-conservative governments nor to sectarian based political parties but to a new movement of working class people and communities moving to resolve common problems with a socialist approach.

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