Ireland: Gama Construction denies its workers food and housing

Joe Higgins condemns company’s “cruelty” and Irish government’s inaction

During yesterday’s ‘Leader’s Questions’ in the Irish Parliament (Dail), 27 April, Joe Higgins, Socialist Party TD (member of Irish parliament for Dublin West), once again raised the issue of the brutal exploitation of Gama Construction’s Turkish workforce in Ireland – including Gama’s latest attempts to deny food and accommodation to the workers. In reply, Bertie Ahern, the Taoiseach (the Irish prime minister) was his usual evasive self.

Gama Construction denies its workers food and housing

Joe Higgins (Socialist Party):

Does the Taoiseach feel ashamed or in any way humiliated that a multinational construction company, Gama Construction, believes it can, in 2005 – in the Ireland which the Taoiseach claims to lead – set out to starve its Turkish workers into abandoning their fight for the wages it stole from them with the same arrogance and cruelty that William Martin Murphy and his cohorts [Irish bosses] treated the Dublin working class during the infamous lockout of 1913?

The hidden wages, which we fished out of a bank in Amsterdam, are being transferred to family accounts but there is a long way to go. However, this is only a minority portion of what the workers are owed. Outstanding is the massive overtime for the 84-hour weeks which they routinely worked. Also outstanding is the issue of those fixed-wage employees who worked the same hours for an incredible €800 per month and for whom there are no wages in Amsterdam. Gama Construction criminally gave no wage slips and criminally shredded timesheets. Will the Taoiseach ask the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, to employ immediately a cohort of accountants with proper authority to process this massive overtime bill and to serve it within days?

As Gama callously cuts off the food to its workers on stoppage and has threatened to evict them, will the Taoiseach demand and ensure this does not happen and will he provide cover for these employees with bridging social welfare payments? Lest any eyebrows be raised about this, we should remind ourselves that the State and semi-State contracts which Gama won have saved the State at least €30 million. Other bidders lost out to Gama on the basis of its exploitation regime. This money is owed to the workers.

I read during the week that the new Pope has asked his flock to pray for him, "that I may not flee for fear of the wolves". Will the Taoiseach and the Government stand up to this ravenous wolf called Gama which is looming over the construction industry and threatening vulnerable workers, migrant workers and, by extension, the rights and conditions of all workers? Will the Taoiseach stand up to Gama from today and ensure this scandal ends forthwith?

Deputies: Hear, hear.

The Taoiseach:

As the Deputy knows, because he has worked with us on this over the last number of months, we have been endeavouring to deal with the outstanding issues on all the points he has raised. The first objective is to complete the work we have been involved in for several weeks in negotiating with Gama’s legal advisors who are currently our only contact with the company. This is not the best way to deal with the matter but it has been forced upon us.

R. Quinn (Labour Party):

The Government still has contracts with Gama.

The Taoiseach:

We are trying to bring resolutions to the outstanding issues and to devise an acceptable verification process in regard to the transfer of funds to the personal accounts of Gama workers. We are actively engaged in this regard. A number of employee accounts have been processed including those of the workers who have returned to Turkey. Certain issues were raised with the company last week and we are awaiting a response on those matters.

A separate issue is the difficulties in regard to the overtime sheets and the excessive hours worked. This is essentially an industrial relations issue and thus a matter for the Labour Relations Commission.

T. Broughan (Labour Party):

How much overtime did the employees work?

The Taoiseach:

Some 118 workers were involved in the first instance and approximately 100 in the second. We are endeavouring to make progress in this matter and it will be helpful to put the matter to the Labour Relations Commission. We have no problem taking the actions suggested by the Deputy in trying to assist the verification process. However, it is an industrial relations issue and must be dealt with by the Labour Relations Commission.

J. Higgins:

It is a welfare issue.

The Taoiseach:

I understand the welfare issue is under consideration. I hope the company will not dare to evict those workers on stoppage for whom it provides food and accommodation. I have already made that position clear to the legal representatives of the company, and I do so again here today. Such actions would not be acceptable. The Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment is involved on a daily basis, and some people in my Department who are working on the social partnership process have also been involved on a daily basis. Some of the workers have finished their work, and there are disputes around that. That issue is being dealt with. There are approximately 1,000 Gama workers in the country. I am talking about two lots of 118 and 100, and we are watching what is happening among the broader Gama workforce.

J. Higgins:

No workers should go anywhere, and certainly not back to Turkey, until they get the money owed to them. Otherwise, they will clearly never see that money. With typical generosity, working people throughout this country are being hugely supportive of the Gama workers, who were cheered by residents of the Ballymun flats the other day, as they marched seeking justice. The Government must live up to the expectation that justice be done to all working people. Moneys that are due to Gama from State or semi-State contracts should be frozen immediately and, if necessary, sequestered to pay for the overtime due to the workers.

I want the Taoiseach to state definitively that the workers need day-to-day spending money. I want him to say that their food will be restored forthwith. That is a major issue. SIPTU has come to the rescue in the short term, which is very good, but that is not a solution. Is it not incredible that the only experience of Irish laws—–

An Ceann Comhairle:

The Deputy’s minute has concluded.

J. Higgins:

—–that these migrant workers have experienced is the flouting of it by the company that brought them here on the invitation of the Tánaiste [Deputy Prime Minister], and that the company is able to hire the most expensive lawyers in Dublin over the workers’ unpaid wages to get High Court protection, preventing the truth of its exploitation regime from coming into the open by blocking the report of the labour inspectorate, which has done some very good work in this regard? Will the Taoiseach come back to us on the issue of the workers’ food, on that of welfare payments and on that of accountants being deployed immediately?

The Taoiseach:

As I said, we have encouraged the parties in the dispute to use the IR machinery to deal with the overtime issue and we are already giving whatever assistance we can. A large amount of people are working on the issue of the workers receiving their money, identifying what is due to them. I did not say – I do not think Deputy Joe Higgins accused me of this – that people should leave the country, but a number have gone already. It is about getting their money back, and some workers have gone themselves. That is the issue. On the matter of the workers’ food, I understand that SIPTU is working and helping in that regard, and I have said that the workers should not be removed from their accommodation.

On workers coming to this country, Deputy Joe Higgins knows that, a few years ago, when price inflation on major contracts was zooming up, everybody in this House was calling on the Government to open up contracts and to attract more people into the country. That was a big issue in this House. It is not about me, the Tánaiste or any other Minister. The country was trying to deal with infrastructure problems and we were trying to get people in. Those who come here, however, have to follow the proper law and must conduct themselves on the proper basis. The labour inspectorate has worked hard to get to the bottom of the matter, as have Ministers. I also acknowledge Deputy Joe Higgins’s role in the matter.

An Ceann Comhairle:

The Taoiseach’s time has concluded.

The Taoiseach:

We continue to ensure that the 1,000 Gama workers in this country are properly looked after.

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April 2005