Ireland: Move to right by Labour leadership on immigrant workers’ rights

All workers’ pay and conditions under threat of attack

The recent statement by Labour Party leader Pat Rabbitte that a new regime of work permits might need to be considered for workers from (presumably) some of the recently joined EU States, marks a further step to the right by the Irish Labour Party. The President of the state’s biggest trade union, SIPTU, publicly supported Pat Rabbitte’s statement.

This is pointing the labour and trade union movement in an extremely dangerous direction. It is an echo of the arguments put forward by the most right wing elements in the campaign before the Nice Treaty Referendum.

There is genuine worry among Irish workers, especially those in trade union organised industries, that the very idea of trade union pay rates and decent working conditions is being systematically undermined by the abuse of migrant workers, especially from the East European EU States. There is no doubt that in the construction industry this is taking place. Former meat industry workers have complained to me that they could now only get work in many meat factories if they were prepared to accept pay rates much lower than before. This is because of the factory bosses hiring immigrant workers at these low rates of pay.

There is no doubt also but that the Fianna Fáil/ Progressive Democrat government, as political representatives of big business, welcome and encourage the threats to decent pay and conditions, while cynically pretending to be sympathetic to workers’ worries.

When Irish Ferries bosses sought to crew their entire passenger ships with massively exploited migrant workers, the government declared it could do nothing. It had, in fact, a few months earlier paid the company over a million euro to subsidise redundancy payments for exactly the same thing on the Normandy which runs between Ireland and France.

Tánaiste Mary Harney was in Turkey in 2000 inviting Turkish big business to set up in Ireland. As a result we got the GAMA construction company which the Socialist Party exposed as a ruthless exploiter of the thousand or so Turkish workers that the company brought here to work on major construction projects, including many State contracts.

But the Socialist Party’s approach to exposing and defeating GAMA’s exploitation also shows how the abuse of migrant workers generally should be taken up. Not by work permits, but by a militant strategy being adopted by the trade unions. (It should be remembered that under the current work permits’ regime, some workers are badly exploited anyway).

A national strategy by the trade union movement as a whole could launch a massive drive to target cheap labour bosses and recruit tens of thousands of new members both migrant and Irish. Shop stewards’ committees and trade union action groups could be established in every county, city and major town that could quickly establish where exploitation was taking place. Bold and imaginative methods could be used to make links with the exploited workers and involve them in the movement. Any employers who retaliated with victimisation would be the subject of immediate solidarity action.

In the struggle for justice for the GAMA workers, it was independent action by the workers themselves with the support and advice of the Socialist Party and other activists that secured a significant victory. Despite its much criticised inaction initially on the GAMA situation, when SIPTU became involved and worked proactively with the Turkish workers’ committee and made its resources available, it gave a glimpse of what could be achieved with an overall national campaign on the issue of exploitation in general.

This is the kind of response that should be advanced by genuine socialism, which bases itself on internationalism, workers’ unity and the solidarity of the working class.

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February 2006