Ireland: Joe Higgins condemns Irish Ferries 543 sackings

Socialist MP attacks replacing union workers with cheap, exploited labour.

The following is an exchange between Joe Higgins, Socialist Party TD (member of the Irish parliament, the Dáil Éireann) and The Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister), Bertie Ahern, over the decision by the company ‘Irish Ferrries’ to sack 543 unionised workers and to replace them with exploited, cheap labour from the Baltic states.

The Socialist Party in Ireland is affiliated to the cwi.

Joe Higgins condemns Irish Ferries 543 sackings

Dáil Éireann, Leaders’ Questions, 15th November 2005

Joe Higgins (Socialist Party):

Today, Irish Ferries has stated, arrogantly, that it intends to push ahead and sack 543 unionised workers, replace them with exploited labour from the Baltic States, and [to] ignore the recommendations of the Labour Court, which is not exactly a revolutionary body. Callously, two employers’ organisations, IBEC and the Irish Exporters Association, are today backing the use of semi-bonded labour by Irish Ferries. This points to a growing pack of corporate wolves who believe workers are not entitled to a decent job, a decent wage and decent working conditions with health and safety safeguards as they pursue their super-profits. The Taoiseach denounced Irish Ferries in this House [parliament] and said it should not do what it is doing. Does he feel humiliated that the company has responded to him with a rude gesture? Or is it the reality that behind the scenes, the Government is showing no commitment to fight what Irish Ferries is doing? He refused to bring in legislation to outlaw this exploitation. Last year, the Government paid Irish Ferries €1.13 million to crew the Normandy with similarly exploited labour. The Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources arrogantly threatened to turn An Post [the national postal service] over to cheap labour employers when the postal workers dared to stand up for justice. A few years ago, the Tánaiste [deputy prime minister] roamed the Middle East inviting big businesses with cheap labour practices to come here. Has the Taoiseach any shred of credibility in the face of this relentless campaign to drive down wages and workers’ conditions? If Irish Ferries is allowed to sack these workers, then every grasping boss in the State will feel he has carte blanche to sack permanent workers and to replace them with cheap, vulnerable, exploited migrant labour.

Will the Taoiseach bring in emergency legislation to outlaw Irish Ferries from introducing semi-bonded labour on it routes? Will he accept its sackings as legal redundancies and have the taxpayers subsidise the scam? What precisely does he intend to do? Can he be very clear in his response?

The Taoiseach:

As I have said previously, the orderly conduct of industrial relations depends on respect for the basic norms of the institutions of the State, the Labour Court, in this instance. The recommendations of the Labour Court are not generally binding, as all employers and trade unions know, but they should be respected as the proper resolution of disputes. This is especially the case with the Irish Ferries dispute. I said this to the trade unions, management and the executive of Irish Ferries when I met them. The court has spelled out very carefully its views on the fundamental aspects of the negotiations and on the collective agreements. It upholds the basic principles that agreements should be honoured unless there are compelling reasons to vary them. In this case, having heard the comprehensive arguments from both sides, the Labour Court concluded that the company has not made a sufficiently compelling case to justify the unilateral termination of the agreement with SIPTU [trade union]. The court went on to state that all the possibilities of re-negotiating aspects to the agreement of concern to the company had not been exhausted. It recommended, therefore, that the parties resume negotiations on such changes as are necessary in order to address the commercial needs of the company. Having regard to the clear risk to the conduct of ordinary industrial relations to which the Deputy referred and which the Labour Court said would otherwise arise, I urge strongly the parties to enter into the negotiations with an independent facilitator if necessary. The issues in dispute between SIPTU and the company can be resolved satisfactorily and speedily and they should do that.

The Deputy also raised the issue of the company’s plans to recruit new staff to re-flagged vessels. The Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources has declined an application by the company to remove the vessels from the Irish register and to transfer them to the Cypriot register. He did so on the advice of the Attorney General. I have been advised there is little prospect but of regulating the employment conditions of staff employed on vessels which are under the Irish flag. The other issue raised was about the handling of the redundancy payments and tax law. What I said about them previously still stands.

J. Higgins:

Does the Taoiseach accept the State in which he rules is increasingly becoming a cold house for workers and their rights as has been demonstrated by the actions of Irish Ferries? We have had the ludicrous situation where the Competition Authority recently threatened trade unions with prosecutions if they negotiate for lowest paid workers among us, such as actors, musicians, film technicians and so on. The Taoiseach gave me chapter and verse on the Labour Court recommendations, but I asked him what the Government will do, which he has not answered. I would like him to be very forthcoming in that respect. It is quite clear what Irish Ferries intend to do, but what will the Government do?

The meat industry is a hive of exploitation, where any Irish worker or a migrant worker who wants the trade union rate will not find a job as the rates have been driven down. Workers on Stena Line, which is a competitor of Irish Ferries, are getting trade union rates at the moment. What will happen to their conditions if Irish Ferries get away with this? This is truly the race to the bottom. I ask again whether the Government will legislate to outlaw this disgrace. Why did the Taoiseach say there is little prospect of regulating wages and conditions for Irish seafarers? He was the king of Europe a year ago [i.e. Ireland held the EU Presidency in 2004]. Why did he not introduce legislation so that no sweatshop boat could ply the waters with impunity? He can still do it.

The Taoiseach:

I said I was advised there was little prospect of regulating conditions of employment for staff on vessels which are not under the Irish flag. That is not just a European issue, but an international one. Many of these flags of convenience are used outside of Europe as well. That is why it could not be regulated when the issue was looked at previously on a number of occasions.

K. Lynch (Labour Party):

If they are forced to comply with health and safety regulations, why is it that the Government cannot force them to comply with wage levels? It is the most regulated industry in the world, but the companies cannot give their staff proper conditions.

An Ceann Comhairle [parliament chamber chairperson]: Allow the Taoiseach answer the question posed by Deputy Higgins.

The Taoiseach:

I already confirmed that the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources has declined an application by the company to remove its vessels from the Irish register and to transfer them to the Cypriot register. The Deputy asked me what I am recommending. That is the job of the Labour Court. I am not an independent arbitrator in this case. I support the court and its recommendations.

J. Higgins:

It made its recommendation. What will he do about it now?

The Taoiseach:

I support the recommendations and that is what should be implemented. We have conveyed that to the company. Having listened to all sides, the Labour Court set out what I believe is a fair and comprehensive decision on this, and that is what should be followed.

J. Higgins:

I hope All Hallows got a lot more satisfaction from its conversations with the Taoiseach than we have got.

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November 2005