Article from the June 2005 issue of the Socialist
newspaper of the Socialist Party, Irish section of the CWI
GAMA just the tip of the iceberg
Exploitation of migrant building workers is rampant
by Tommy Fitzgerald, Regional Organiser BATU
OVER THE past decade the Irish Construction Industry has seen unprecedented levels of growth. Historic levels of output have been reached both in the commercial and residential sector. In 2004, completions of new dwellings had risen to 76,000 from 30,000 in 1995, 12% of the national workforce are employed in the construction industry.
Over this period, many construction workers have enjoyed a number of gains ranging from higher levels of employment, increases in rates of pay, developments in protective legislation, and improvements in pension compliance. It is important to note that the vast majority of these gains were won because construction workers engaged in hard fought struggles and campaigned for improved conditions.
The construction boom has also resulted in an increase in the number of serious injuries and fatalities. In 2004 the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) confirmed that the construction industry accounted for more fatalities than any other industry. High levels of non- compliance of the two legally binding agreements have also been a feature of this decade. Less than 25% of the 220,000 plus (CSO) workers in this industry are in the mandatory pension scheme. While it is more difficult to compile statistics regarding breaches of the binding industry agreement on pay and conditions, cases such as the GAMA dispute highlight some of the sharpest expression of super exploitation by construction employers. As a union organiser for the Building & Allied Trades Union, my colleagues and I have experienced hundreds of cases of gross exploitation of migrant workers. GAMA is just the tip of the iceberg.
While there are no definitive figures on the number of migrant workers employed in construction, industry sources estimate upwards of 40,000. This should be a welcome addition for important construction projects such as improvement in infrastructure, new schools, and new hospitals etc., instead of an opportunity for greedy employers to swell their profit margins.
Currently in BATU we are dealing with the underpayment of almost 100 Polish workers in three companies in Ireland by two Polish employers, and one Irish. In one case a Polish company Noris Poland told 12 workers that they would be sent back to Poland if they let the union know that they are being paid a third of the minimum rate. The company is withholding an average of Euro200 per month from their wages as a bond to deter them seeking employment elsewhere. While this dispute ended in a victory with the workers being employed by the main contractors this is not always the case for migrant workers. To date our experience has shown that employers are willing to house workers in houses on site with plaster work still wet, in caravans on site with no proper facilities, and evict them from their homes when they attempt to fight back. This type of barbaric treatment of workers will continue to exist unless the construction trade unions in conjunction with the ICTU take responsibility and lead a battle to permanently stamp out this type of attacks on all construction workers. The GAMA workers have shown us all how to stamp out exploitation in the building industry.
Construction companies are using migrant labour to try and drive down the wages of all building workers. But we can stop the exploitation of migrant workers and the construction bosses agenda to cut all wages by recruiting all workers to the unions and fighting to ensure that the proper rates and conditions for the job are applied equally to all. A united campaign by Irish and migrant building workers can defeat the employers. Recently 26 Portuguese workers (BATU members) supported Irish bricklayers in a dispute by taking solidarity strike action for two weeks. This solidarity action assisted the Irish bricklayers in winning their dispute. This example needs to be applied throughout the whole of our industry.