Since 4 April, 350 Turkish workers at Gama Construction in Ireland have been on strike, fighting against extreme exploitation.
The action has affected three of Gama’s four main sites in Ireland, closing down two of them completely. The two sites in Dublin are closed and the site in Ennis, County Clare is badly affected. Despite the walkout of fifty workers, their construction of a power station in Tynagh, County Galway is continuing. The strike followed months of organising by the Socialist Party and a number of Gama workers. Together we campaigned and organised, sometimes openly – sometimes secretly (because of threats and intimidation by the company), and outlined the massive gap between what the company said it was paying its workers and the real situation of pay rates of between 2 to 3 € an hour. Gama workers were also forced to work more than eighty hours a week.
The Socialist Party has been indispensable in this dispute and has played a brilliant role, showing by example, what other left forces and the labour movement should be doing in today’s global economy of super-exploited workers. Gama was an issue that many trade union leaders, comfortable with years of ‘social partnership’ with profit hungry Irish big business, initially did not want to touch with a barge pole.
Gama’s brutal exploitation of its workforce was first discovered by Mick Murphy, a councillor for the Socialist Party in Dublin, and the Tallaght branch of the Socialist Party. Joe Higgins, Socialist Party TD (Member of Parliament) for Dublin West, has placed the Gama workers’ plight at the top of the agenda in the Daíl (Irish parliament) and in the media. Joe’s campaigning work on this issue shows why some journalists refer to him as the "official opposition" in the Daíl.
Joe Higgins, the Gama workers, and the Socialist Party have got acres of newsprint over this struggle. This reaffirms that the Socialist Party is a serious national factor in Irish politics, as an organisation which fights for working people and the most oppressed. Miriam Lord, a journalist for the ‘Irish Independent’, recently wrote an article entitled ‘Wherever you go, talk to Joe; he gets things done and runs the show…’
In the article, describing the confrontation between Joe Higgins and the Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, over the Gama issue, Miriam Lord writes: "Thanks to Joe Higgins, there was the rare sight of real people, in real trouble, beginning to get their problems sorted out…" (Irish Indpendent, 13 April 2005)
The strike action has had a big impact on Irish society and has made Gama and the treatment of migrant workers a key issue. There is broad support for the workers and indeed amongst many there is admiration that the workers took such a militant stance in the face of severe intimidation and threats. The contrast between the success of this action, led by the Turkish workers and the Socialist Party, and the inaction of the trade union leaders on all the key issues has also been registered by many Irish workers.
Gama said publicly they paid their general operatives 12.96€ an hour. On the basis of the hours worked and estimating for overtime, these workers should have been paid in the region of 5,000€ a month. Instead they got less than 1,000 € and the company pocketed the rest in super profits.
Since starting its operations in Ireland nearly five years ago Gama, a Turkish multinational, has brought more than two thousand Turkish workers to Ireland. Currently they employ just under one thousand. Undoubtedly the amount of money robbed is vast, certainly more than one hundred million. The strike action developed very quickly after Joe Higgins TD and councillor Mick Murphy of the Socialist Party and four former Gama workers discovered up to 40 million € of these stolen wages in Finansbank in the Netherlands on the last day in March. As part of an elaborate fraud, Gama had opened up bank accounts in the name of two thousand of its workers, past and present, which contained this money. The workers knew nothing of these accounts or the money which was destined for the coffers of the company.
From their point of view, Gama cannot publicly admit the truth. To do so would destroy its position in Irish construction and would devastate its hopes of moving into the rest of the EU as news of its practices would spread. They are trying to tough it out, cause confusion, legal delays and wear down the workers. However because there is a huge amount at stake, that means that Gama can also be put under enormous pressure. The strike action has created such pressure. It and the protests directed at the state have also forced the Irish Government, who had previously gone out of their way to facilitate Gama, to intervene against Gama and to commit themselves to oversee the transfer of the money in Finansbank to the workers. The Government has also indicated that Gama will not be given any new work permits and have curtailed the company from ending the contracts of workers or from sending workers back to Turkey.
Bank statements from Finansbank are due to be sent to the workers on strike. These workers will then immediately send authorisation to the bank to transfer the money to bank accounts of their choice. While these accounts only contain a portion of the money that was stolen from the workers, in many cases the amounts are substantial, certainly in Turkish terms. Workers who have been in Ireland for a short time may have a few thousand, others who have been here for two or three years will get between 40,000 to 60,000 €! This is a big victory for these workers and a huge blow to Gama.
The key issues in this dispute are the payment of all the monies in Finansbank; the full payment of all other wages robbed by Gama and thirdly the payment by Gama of the proper trade union rates of pay to all its workers in an open and transparent way. It is not clear exactly how the workers on strike will feel when the money from Finansbank comes through. There is no question of any return to work until all this money is paid and if Gama tries to obstruct access to this cash to the strikers, the action will escalate and the state would be forced to come down on the company in a serious way. It is therefore likely that this money will be paid.
More than 500 people from Turkey are still working for Gama, mainly at the site in Tynagh; this includes a significant number of management and some workers who are closely associated to the company. However there are still many ordinary workers who have not joined the action because of intimidation and threats, including threats to their families at home in Turkey. If Gama pays the protesters over the next days and weeks, it is inconceivable that they could hold the line with these other workers with threats alone. Indications are that they are promising those at work they will get all their money in Finansbank. If they do pay up, the basis exists to connect with the best of these workers as it will have become clear that without the campaign and the action, knowledge of this money never mind getting possion of it, would have been impossible. If Gama doesn’t pay up or only partially pays up, a new opportunity would exist to involve more of the workers in Tynagh with the possibility of closing down all of Gama’s sites.
This battle has shown the inability and unwillingness of the trade union leadership to organise and fight for workers. They are closer to the bosses and the Government that they are to the workers. They don’t fight for Irish workers and have little intention of doing it for migrant workers. Notwithstanding that, the significance of this dispute has been registered by many workers. Many are outraged at the pay rates that their fellow workers at Gama were being paid because it represented slave labour conditions for those workers. They is also a strong understanding that such rates of pay would inevitably create a downward pressure on the wages of all workers in construction. This battle has created an opportunity to establish points of contact and unity between Irish and migrant workers and of workers from different unions, regardless of the positions of their so-called leaderships. It has also shown that with determination and the correct strategy and tactics, that workers have the power to sideline the union bureaucracy and organise successful action that gets results.