Ireland: GAMA Workers fight slave wages

Hundreds OF Turkish workers employed by GAMA walked off building sites in unofficial industrial action despite threats and intimidation from the company.

Special feature from The Socialist, newspaper of the Socialist Party (cwi Ireland) including the background to the dispute and interviews with GAMA workers. Link to pdf of The Socialist front page (127KB, opens in new window).

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GAMA Workers fight slave wages

After many months of patient work, and investigation by the Socialist Party, GAMA has been exposed as gangsters involved in gross exploitation of their migrant workers.

The exposure of this corruption and exploitation has given the GAMA workers the confidence to stand up and fight for their rights and to get back the millions that their employers have stolen from them.

Joe Higgins TD used the phrase "bonded labour" when he first exposed this scandal in the Dail. And that’s exactly what the GAMA workers were. GAMA’s Turkish workforce worked, slept and ate on the building sites. Their work permits are held by the company who use the threat of withdrawing them and sending them back to Turkey, a country of mass unemployment and widespread poverty, as a weapon to force them to accept their lot.

The government is complicit in this scandal as it was Mary Harney, Tanaiste and Minister for Health, who went to Turkey to encourage GAMA to set up in Ireland – and it is the government’s work permit scheme that allows GAMA and many other employers to grossly exploit migrant labour. Since the Socialist Party exposed GAMA many other examples of the super-exploitation of migrant labour have come to light. The Fillipino woman employed as a beautician with Irish Ferries for e1 an hour! The migrant farm labourers again being paid only e1 an hour and being fed brown sauce sandwiches as their main meal for the day! Thousands of migrant workers are being exploited by Irish capitalism.

SIPTU are also responsible for allowing this exploitation to take place. Incredibly the Turkish workers at GAMA are members of SIPTU, yet its leaders were shocked by the news of the slave wages the Turkish workers have been receiving. SIPTU is the biggest trade union in Ireland with hundreds of full time workers, access to legal teams and substantial resources. Yet its members at GAMA were being paid at little as e2.20 an hour for nearly five years and it could uncover nothing.

Compared to SIPTU the Socialist Party has small resources but we got results because we had the political determination to get stuck in and work patiently over months to uncover and to fight to undo a major injustice. The Socialist Party understands that exploitation is inherent in the capitalist system.

On the other hand, SIPTU are committed to solving the problems of its members and the working class through social partnership with the bosses and the government! The SIPTU leadership works under the illusion that this type of super-exploitation is a thing of the past. This social partnership driven philosophy led to the situation were SIPTU’s officials failed dismally to ensure that their members in GAMA were getting proper union rates for a regular working week.

The GAMA scandal shows how far capitalist companies are prepared to go in order to increase their profits. All multinational companies would love to pay e2.20 an hour if they thought they could get away with it. It is impossible to have a partnership with the bosses, and GAMA shows that we need to fundamentally change the trade unions, to transform them from being "partners" of the government and the employers into democratic fighting organisations that stand up and fight for workers rights.

The slave wages being paid by GAMA and many other companies to migrant workers are already being used by the employers to cut the wages and conditions of Irish workers. Companies will use the excuse of needing to cut costs in order to compete as an argument for wage cuts. It is in the interests of all workers in Ireland to unite and support the heroic struggle of the GAMA workers and all migrant workers against this exploitation – united we stand, divided we fall.

Socialist Party demands:

  • GAMA workers have immediate access to all of their funds at Finansbank.
  • Immediate payment of all wages owed to GAMA workers.
  • Immediate implementation of trade union rates of pay and a 39- hour week with a maximum of 9 hours overtime.
  • SIPTU’s full resources to be used to support the workers campaign against GAMA.
  • Scrap the work permit scheme that facilitates the exploitation of migrant labour.

Background

Capitalism on trial

A huge amount has happened since Joe Higgins TD first raised allegations in the Dail that GAMA, the Turkish multinational construction company, was operating a modern version of bonded labour on its sites in Ireland.

Kevin McLoughlin

Joe alleged that GAMA had robbed its Turkish employees of hundreds of millions of euros in wages. Joe Higgin’s allegations forced the Dept. of Enterprise, Trade and Employment to launch an investigation but the publication of their report, which would have recommended a more forensic investigation of the company, has been temporarily stopped by GAMA through a high court injunction in late March. At the same time up to E30 million of the stolen wages were found in Finansbank in Amsterdam. This discovery was crucial in convincing hundreds of GAMA’s Turkish workers, in the face of intense intimidation from the company, to go on strike. An incredible picture is emerging of highly organised, brutal exploitation of labour and financial fraud.

GAMA has been operating in Ireland for nearly five years. They are a key player in construction in Turkey and employ more than 10,000 in many countries in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Russia, Germany and Ireland. Currently they employ around 900 Turkish workers and 300 Irish workers in this country. They came here to benefit from the massive construction boom in Ireland and have set up their European head quarters in Dublin, wanting to use Ireland as a stepping stone into the EU and the USA. They have underbid competitors and been granted some very important state sponsored contracts including major motorways, housing and the building of a power plant in Tynagh, Co. Galway.

Commitments were given by GAMA that they would pay the Turkish workers they brought here the going registered rates of pay. On top of that the company agreed that their Turkish general operatives, the bulk of their workforce, would become members of SIPTU. GAMA publicly stated on many occasions that they paid their operatives e12.96 an hour. Payment took the form of some cash in the hand, between e150 – e250 a month and payment of amounts into two separate bank accounts in Turkey, a euro and a Turkish lira account.

Rumours about mistreatment and low pay circulated for some time but were hard to verify because of the intimidation of the workers by the company. However because of the campaigning work of the Socialist Party, in particular our councillor Mick Murphy in Tallaght, workers came forward and provided testimony to the Socialist Party and the Labour Inspectorate that has exposed capitalist exploitation at its most brutal.

e2.20 an hour

General operatives were paid e2.20 an hour, with slight increases for overtime and Sunday work. Skilled workers from Turkey like carpenters had a slightly higher rate starting just above e3 an hour. People were stunned when GAMA completed the Ballincollig By-Pass six months ahead of schedule. They were able to achieve this on the basis of an incredibly long working week.

The average working week of those who were interviewed by the inspectors was 84 hours. GAMA also benefited from a tax loophole because they claimed their workers were domiciled in Turkey and they didn’t have to pay income tax. If they were paid what GAMA was claiming, the workers would have earned close to e5,000 a month, instead they got less than a quarter of that amount with the company pocketing the difference to make super profits.

The existence of such brutal and extreme exploitation in Ireland in the 21st Century has shocked people. Many perhaps thought that migrant workers were being mistreated but that Joe Higgins and the Socialist Party had possibly overstated the extent of the abuse. When the allegations were first made public, GAMA came out fighting and dismissed them. Their public and legal representative Richard Grogan of PC Moore Solicitors said he welcomed the investigation and looked forward to Joe Higgins apologising to the company at its completion. Richard Grogan has now severed his links with GAMA.

The only way that GAMA could possibly cover up such a robbery was by segregating the Turkish workers as much as possible from other workers and the local community. The company also used the threat of withdrawing the workers’ work permits and sending them back to Turkey to keep them compliant. It is also clear that many workers feared for their physical safety and that of their families back in Turkey. There have been reports of family members in Turkey being threatened because of the stand that the workers are making in Ireland.

GAMA took out an injunction against the publication of the Labour Inspectorate’s Report because it will be hugely damaging to the company but also in order to give itself time to try to concoct a cover-up of the truth. On 4 March they had tried to limit the damage by saying that they had found that some workers were underpaid by about 8% and that the difference would be repaid. GAMA said some middle managers in Turkey were suspended. Crucially GAMA also tried to contradict the content of the testimonies given by the workers regarding wage levels by saying that their operatives worked no more than 48 hours a week. The gap between the detailed testimonies of the workers regarding hours worked and monies paid, backed up with the scraps of paper GAMA used as pay slips and statements from the bank accounts in Turkey, and what GAMA said it paid the men could not be bridged. When asked for the workers’ timesheets, they said they had been sent to head office in Dublin where they had been shredded.

Then the information about the existence of bank accounts in the names of GAMA workers in Finansbank in Amsterdam came to light. It seems that in 2002 GAMA began a practice of opening up accounts in the names of most of its Turkish workers based in Ireland. This was a vain attempt by GAMA to cover themselves in the event of this whole scandal coming to light. They have been depositing the difference between what they have actually paid their workers and the rate they should have received for a 48 hour week into accounts in Finansbank.

Joe Higgins, Mick Murphy, four former GAMA workers and Irish Examiner reporter, Michael O’Farrell, went to Amsterdam and discovered that there are bank accounts in the name of current and former GAMA workers. None of the workers knew of the existence of these accounts. Substantial numbers of workers have returned to Turkey without any knowledge of this money. On average each account contains up to e15,000 but some would have substantially more. In Turkish terms that is an awful lot of money. It is inconceivable that these workers knew the accounts existed as living conditions in Turkey are hard and the idea that these workers would leave such amounts completely untouched is simply unbelievable.

Finansbank

These accounts contain up to e30 million. But this is only part of this massive fraud and rip-off. Where is the money for the wages due to these Turkish workers for the other 40 hours overtime that they were forced to work each week? Some of GAMA’s workers who are on flat rates of pay don’t have any accounts in Finansbank, where is their money? This scandal points to a very well organised financial fraud and embezzlement. Who was involved and who knew about it in Turkey, the Netherlands and in Ireland are crucial questions that must be answered.

GAMA and Finansbank NV claim that the workers did know of these bank accounts as they had signed a form authorising their establishment when they became GAMA employees.

The workers will tell you that they did sign many forms when commencing employment with GAMA. Crucially two forms they were asked to sign related to the accounts with Finansbank and both were in English. None of the workers speak English and therefore didn’t know what they were signing. They were not given copies and were afraid to ask. One of the forms authorised the setting up of the account and the other authorised an investment company called Ryder Investments NV to take money from the workers accounts. And the money has been taken by Ryder Investments the day after it was deposited into the accounts by GAMA. This is being investigated. e30 million can earn a lot from being invested, or could be used borrow money for financial or capital investment. What is clear is that this money was never intended to end up in the hands of the Turkish workers. Finansbank have admitted that it was unusual that no GAMA worker has ever inquired about their accounts, and that the bank never sent them statements. Both GAMA and Finansbank have refused to give any information on Ryder Investments.

What GAMA has done is simply pursue the policies of capitalism, that is, take every opportunity you can to maximise profits. The deregulation of markets and the orgy of profiteering that it spawns and the neo-liberal policies pursued globally and by the Irish Government, have created conditions for such extreme exploitation.

Tax loophole

The policies of the Irish Government encouraged and helped GAMA specifically. The tax loophole that allowed them not to pay income tax gave them a competitive edge. Their work permit scheme made the workers dependent on GAMA. They were happy when GAMA was able to undercut all comers and gave GAMA important state sponsored projects but did they ever seriously check the wages that the workers were receiving? It is clear their lower bids were based on the vicious exploitation. That GAMA was able to get an injunction to stop the publication of the Labour Inspectorate’s report and the fact that the state has so far done nothing to recover the stolen money sitting in Finansbank, shows how the system is geared against workers.

Fundamentally there is little difference between GAMA’s mistreatment of the 2,000 Turkish workers it has brought to Ireland and the declaration by the Bank of Ireland that they are making e4 million a day in profits but are going all-out to maximise their profits by throwing 2,000 workers on the dole and increasing the exploitation on the remaining staff!

The drive of bosses to push down wages must be resisted in the workplaces and politically. If unchallenged capitalism will lead to increasing poverty and economic crisis. A socialist society would overcome the madness of the system that only produces wealth so a minority can profit and where exploitation is inevitable. It is entirely possible to harness the economic resources and the talents of people so that everyone’s economic needs could be met and where everyone would benefit from the fruits of their labour.

Interviews

GAMA workers speak out

The Socialist spoke to GAMA workers. We have withheld their names because of the threat of victimisation.

How did you first find out that you were being underpaid?

"About mid-January Socialist Party Councillor Mick Murphy distributed some leaflets to the workers and this made us aware of the situation."

Could you tell us something about the conditions on the sites?

"The accommodation is crowded – we are sleeping six in a small room, in bunk beds."

Do many of you have families to support in Turkey from the money you earn here?

"It happens automatically that some of the money is sent to Turkey. Some of the men are married, they support their wives and children. And those who aren’t married would often support their mother and father, so one way or the other everybody has someone in Turkey who is benefiting from their income."

How often do the workers get to go home?

"We have a holiday of 20 days every year in Turkey. First, we have to wait a full year before being entitled to a holiday. Then we have to struggle for it, we have to apply and keep asking for permission. It usually takes two or three months to finally get permission from the bosses to go."

What was your reaction to the Finansbank accounts?

"It just came completely out of the blue, everyone was shocked that there was money in accounts in everyone’s names. It was unbelievable, we had no idea it was there. That’s when we realised how much we really had been fooled all along."

Have the company tried to intimidate any of the workers?

"There is immense pressure, and threats are being made, both to those who are out and those who have not joined the protests."

"We know that we are in the right, that we have rights, and we want to get what is ours, and then go back and carry on working. We don’t want to be used or manipulated any more by GAMA."

A GAMA worker at the Tynagh site said:

"I was at the meeting in Dublin on Sunday with my colleagues, to talk to the unions and arrange the protests, in our own time. When we returned to the site we were physically thrown out, grabbed by the necks and thrown out. So now we are afraid to go back to the plant."

When Mick Murphy, Joe Higgins and other Socialist Party members first got involved, what was the reaction of the workers?

"We wanted to find out who these people were, we asked lots of questions. But we decided that these people could be trusted and that we should follow their leadership, take their advice and work with them."

These articles are taken from the April edition of the Socialist, newspaper of the Socialist Party in Ireland

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