Socialist View, No. 14, Spring 2005
Gama: labour scandal
ON 8 FEBRUARY in the Dail Joe Higgins TD exposed the slave labour conditions being operated in Ireland by GAMA, a Turkish multinational construction company. Currently it has just under one thousand workers from Turkey working in a number of sites around Ireland and claim that it pays its Turkish workers E12.96 an hour. The truth is very different. These workers live on site, are forced to work up to 80 hours a week and are paid between E2 - E3 an hour!
By Kevin McLoughlin
This scandal was uncovered by the Socialist Party's Councillor in South Dublin, Mick Murphy, when he and other party members intervened into an industrial dispute involving three Irish carpenters and GAMA last November. Serious questions then emerged over the treatment and wages of the Turkish workers on the site. These workers were very reluctant to talk about their treatment for fear of victimisation by GAMA. In the South, it is the company that holds the work permits and they use the threat of sending the workers home to force them to accept low wages and poor working conditions.
After producing leaflets in Turkish, which explained the workers' rights and entitlements, the party found innovative ways of getting them to the workers in a number of sites around the country. This resulted in some workers approaching the Socialist Party with information about their pay and conditions.
Following Joe Higgins' questions in the Dail, Bertie Ahern was forced to order an official investigation into GAMA. The investigation is being carried out by inspectors from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. GAMA firmly rejected the accusations and said they welcomed and would co-operate with the investigation. However, on 4 March GAMA issued a damage limitation statement, admitting they had discovered that some workers had in fact been underpaid by an average of 8% and that some were owed up to E3,500.
As the investigations are being stepped up, it is now emerging that the Socialist Party accusations were fundamentally correct and that GAMA was trying to cover up extreme exploitation of their workers. The company has breached the minimum wage and Registered Employment Agreement that governs the construction. These workers could be owed tens or hundreds of thousands of euro each depending on how long they have worked for GAMA in Ireland.
GAMA is the biggest construction company in Turkey and employs 10,000 people in a number of countries. In the South, it has under bid other construction companies and has been granted contracts for a number of major state funded infrastructure projects. It is clear that GAMA wanted to establish a base in Ireland by successfully completing major projects and then to use Ireland as a stepping-stone into the rest of the EU and the US. Now, its international position could being severely undermined.
This company comes from a capitalist society where the establishment rules through corruption and repression. The way GAMA operates also shows the lengths that capitalists are prepared to go to in order to maximise profits. Imperialism was the term given to the exporting of capital from the advanced countries to less developed regions, where it was then used to exploit the local raw materials and low wage labour to the benefit of major corporations and the dominant capitalist powers. In this case, GAMA is exporting low-waged labour to a relatively advanced country, so it can reap the huge margin between "Third World" wage costs and "First World" prices. Not only is it engaging in extreme exploitation of these Turkish workers, it is also robbing workers here who are paying the tax that is funding these projects. On top of that, the conditions GAMA imposes on its workers will inevitably tend to undermine the hard won rights of other construction workers.
This company has been audacious, highly organised and has established an incredible legal and financial facade to cover up its operation. Bringing workers to a foreign country for extended periods runs the risk that knowledge of their real pay and conditions could leak out. That is why, as much as possible, GAMA has segregated the Turkish workers from other workers and why it controls the sites and accommodation tightly and has created an atmosphere of fear and intimidation. Undoubtedly, they also have spies and informers amongst their workers.
The government moved quickly to instigate an investigation after it was called for by Joe Higgins, in reality they had no choice. But the attitudes and actions of the government must also be scrutinized and many questions need answering. Did they hope that by bringing in companies and workers from lower wage economies that this could result in reducing wages generally and weaken the construction unions? Rumours about GAMA have been circulating for a while in the building industry. What checks did the government carry out on GAMA before awarding them major state sponsored projects? Did they just accept GAMA claims or did they make any checks on GAMA sites since the company started its operations but before the recent investigations?
This government has organised trade missions to Turkey, did they have any meetings, connections or agreements with GAMA? GAMA's operation and its ability to intimidate the workers was facilitated by the government's work permit scheme, where the permits are granted to the boss and the worker is tied to that company solely. GAMA doesn't pay income tax for its workers because of a government loophole to entice investment and the importation of labour.
One of the issues that has been highlighted by this scandal is the role of the trade union movement in relation to these Turkish workers and immigrant workers in general. GAMA has operated for nearly five years in Ireland and the Turkish workers are paid up members of SIPTU, which organises general operatives in construction. As mentioned, there have been persistent rumors in the industry regarding the wages and conditions within GAMA. Regardless of what SIPTU may say, their efforts have been lackluster and ran into the ground when confronted with minor obstacles. Yet the Socialist Party with tiny resources compared to SIPTU, in a matter of months exposed GAMA and established a campaign for justice for these workers. The reality is that if SIPTU had adopted a serious and fighting approach, this scandal could have been exposed and dealt with long ago. Since the Socialist Party lifted the lid on GAMA, the unions have been forced into action and many other examples of exploitation of immigrant workers have come to light. In a few cases, immigrant workers have taken strike action and placed pickets which have received support from other building workers and local communities.
Unions must intervene
SIPTU and other unions in construction must now move decisively against GAMA and campaign for equal pay and conditions for all immigrant workers.
They should do whatever is necessary to establish strong links and connections with the Turkish workers. SIPTU should intervene to establish workers' and union control on GAMA's sites and in the accommodation areas in order to break the grip of intimidation by the company. SIPTU should not wait for legal challenges in order to get these workers their back-pay and compensation, instead they should immediately discuss with the workers a strategy and campaign to get full payment of all monies due. The Socialist Party will continue to do whatever it can to assist these workers to get organised and to fight back.
GAMA's operation in Ireland will have inevitably helped other bosses to lower the wage rates and conditions of all construction workers. It is vital that the unions take action to organise and successfully involve immigrant workers in the union movement. The resources of the unions should be used to cater for the special needs of such workers and to overcome any obstacles that stand in the way of their participation in the unions, for example, by providing translators to overcome language barriers. The GAMA scandal and other recent examples offer the trade union movement a real opportunity to organise and unite immigrant and Irish workers. In so doing, they can play a vital role in combating the development of anti-immigrant and racist attitudes in society. In order to do this they need to ditch the tame policies of "social partnership" and become fighting, democratic organisations for all workers.
The exposing of GAMA's lies and robbery of these workers could also be a major issue in Turkey itself. The Socialist Party will try to ensure that all the information regarding the situation gets into Turkey and we will try to see if the serious issues that are raised have an impact on the establishment, on GAMA workers there or for the working class generally in Turkey. In other countries, particularly in the EU, where GAMA operates, investigations should also be carried out into their operations. Our sister organisations and parties in the Committee for a Workers' International (CWI) will have a crucial role to play in this work.
The conditions that GAMA is imposing on its workers are draconian but this company in reality just reflects the "maximise profit at all costs" principle that capitalism is pursuing generally across the globe. A feature of globalisation is the attempt by employers to force workers to compete with each other on wages in what is a race to the bottom for all workers. It is also a disgrace that there only 21 employment inspectors for a workforce of nearly two million.
Capitalism to blame
The extreme exploitation of immigrant workers that is taking place in GAMA and other companies, the massive profiteering from house building and public construction contracts shows that the working class is being ripped off by privately owned big business. This is a clear argument in favour of a democratically run publicly owned construction company that would not only result in better wages and conditions for all workers but cheaper housing and construction costs.
A fighting and bold approach to organising workers as used by the Socialist Party in relation to GAMA has been shown to be superior to the "social partnership" of the union leaders. It is also necessary to build mass support for the ideas of socialism in order to replace the exploitation that is inherent in the capitalist system with a socialist society.