Rising to the Occasion? Trade Union Revitalisation and Migrant Workers in Ireland

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4.1. Background

Much of the literature would portray Ireland as historically an impoverished, mono-cultural mono-ethnic state dominated by an inward-looking and isolationist culture and an economy which up to the 1990s could not provide sufficient employment for its people who emigrated in large numbers throughout the 19th and most of the 20th centuries.16 In the period 1861 to 1961, the average annual net emigration from Ireland consistently exceeded the natural increase in the Irish population. Consequently, Ireland’s population shrank from 4.4 million in 1861 to 2.8 million in 1961 (Ruhs 2005). Hickman takes issue with the mono-cultural argument, considering it “one of the central myths of Independent Ireland that we all shared a common set of social values and a common culture” (2007: 15). She maintains that like most other nation states, Ireland is a “hybrid product” with a long history of traditional and, latterly, ethnic minorities. Mac Éinrí would argue that, prior to the 1990’s there was no part of Ireland (with the partial exception of one area of Dublin where many of the city’s Jewish community lived) where the presence of minorities or immigrants was publicly and visibly manifest. He suggests that Ireland’s historical demographic and migration profile can fairly be described as unique, at least in European terms (Mac Éinrí, 2008).
While the cultural make-up may be contested, clearly, Ireland was a relatively poor peripheral European country with strong and sustained emigration, limited employment opportunities and no traditional colonial ties to majority world countries which had not received any significant immigration flows prior to the mid -1990s. As such, Ireland had not received any significant immigration flows prior to the mid -1990s and therefore little consideration, therefore, had been given to a formal immigration policy. The prevailing official attitude towards immigrants, or ‘aliens’, the term generally employed, was one of caution, if not outright opposition (Mac Éinrí 2005). The only cases of immigration to Ireland previously had involved small numbers of refugees: Hungarians in 1956; Chileans in 1973; Vietnamese in 1979; Iranians in the mid-1980 and Bosnians in the early 1990s) (Krings 2007; Mac Éinrí2005). Up to the late 1980s, Ireland continued to be a country of emigration. For the decade 1981 – 1991, the net outflow was over 200,000, or almost 6% of the population (Barrett & Duffy 2007). In 1993 Ireland’s unemployment level peaked at 16%.

4.2. Economic and labour market conditions and initial immigration

In the mid-1990s, the Irish economy underwent an economic transformation when the ‘Celtic Tiger’17 emerged and Ireland began to experience the highest growth rate in Europe. Unemployment fell, population outflows were reversed and net inflows began. In the decade 1991 – 2000 almost half a million new jobs were added to the Irish economy, an expansion of 43%, creating a need for new labour that could not be filled from the indigenous existing labour force (Barrett & Duffy 2007; Mac Éinrí 2005). Ireland moved to a situation where it experienced almost full employment, with an average unemployment rate of just over 4 per cent in the early years of this century (CSO 2006) with the EU average standing at 8 per cent during this period (Eurostat 2009). In 1994 non-Irish nationals had accounted for about 2 per cent or 24,200 of the employed labour force. By 2006, and after the opening up of the Irish labour market to workers from new EU countries following enlargement in 2004, immigrants accounted for 17 per cent of the labour force (Barrett & Duffy 2007; CSO 2007). Thus Ireland went from being a country of net outward migration to becoming one of net inward migration at a speed that was unprecedented. In just 15 years Ireland moved from being Britain’s ex colony on the European periphery to the epitome of neo-liberal globalisation (Castles 2011).
The literature would generally contend that the admission of immigrants was largely market-led and, indeed, the claim was made by successive Irish Governments that Ireland’s migration regime was one of the most open and flexible in the EU. With no history of immigration, little consideration had been given at Government level to the development of a formal immigration policy. Mac Éinrí observed in 2008 that “Ireland is no longer a country where immigration can be regarded as a short-term or transient issue. The country has now definitively joined the European mainstream as a society where a population of mixed ethnic backgrounds will be the norm” (2008: 12). He pointed to a number of particularly noteworthy features of this immigration. Firstly it followed the classic two-tier pattern, with a strong demand for high-skilled migrants in certain sectors such as medicine and technology and a substantial flow of migrants into unskilled or relatively unskilled sectors. Secondly, the range of source countries was highly diversified (although Central and Eastern Europe were dominant), most of the source countries had few previous close political or cultural connections with Ireland, posing an additional challenge for migrants arriving here as well as for the receiving society. And thirdly that, despite the levels of immigration, Ireland still did not have a finely tuned labour market immigration policy (Mac Éinrí 2008). This remains the case to date but the economic downturn and the consequent fall-off in non-EU migration, has taken the urgency out of the situation.
From 1995 Ireland looked outside its own borders to meet labour market needs. In the early stages, Ireland’s immigrants were made up of a combination of returning emigrants and new arrivals, primarily from the countries of the former Eastern Bloc (Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, the Ukraine, Romania, Russia, Bosnia and Hungary) as well as smaller but significant numbers from the Philippines, South Africa, Brazil and China. Much smaller numbers came from other parts of Asia and Africa. By the end of the 20th century the numbers of returning emigrants had all but ceased while the numbers of migrant workers into the country continued to grow.
Up to 2004 the majority of labour migrants to Ireland came under an employment permit system, targeted at unskilled occupations and administered by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment (DETE). According to Ruhs (2005) 74% of all work permits issued related to relatively low-skilled occupations. There were fewer than 4,000 work permits issued in 1996, just over 6,000 in 1999, with this increasing to almost 48,000 in 2003, the year before accession. It dropped to 34,000 the following year (See Figure 5 below). This reduction is due to the fact that one of the largest regions of labour supply to Ireland was the block of Eastern European Countries which became members of the EU in May 2004, whose workers then no longer required permits. Thus while the issuing of work permits fell slightly, the rate of foreign workers entering the Irish labour market continued to rise (Dundon et al. 2005). Migrant workers also came under work visa and work authorisation schemes during this time, but these schemes were focused on the more highly skilled professions and the numbers entering the country were much lower.
Figure 5: Work permits issued in Ireland, 1995 – 2005

Work permits were issued to employers, rather than migrant workers, they were non-transferable and were valid for one year but could be renewed annually. This meant that a migrant worker employed on a work permit was legally only eligible to work for the employer specified on the permit. Up to 2003, this system was almost entirely employer led, with very little state intervention and, while it created the opportunities for large numbers of migrant workers to find work in Ireland, it also created conditions for exploitation. Under the system, workers were tied to a specific employer and unable to move to other employment if they had any difficulties with that employer. In the event that they left employment, they became undocumented and would then be considered to be illegally resident in the State. Siobhan O’Donoghue, Director of MRCI observed “Work permits were, to all intents and purposes a form of bonded or indentured labour with huge potential for exploitation” (Interview, 2012).
The composition of the migration flows changed over the years; while they were at first dominated by returning Irish migrants, the proportion of Irish migrants decreased around 2000-2002. Between 2002 and 2004 migrants from non-EU countries, entering on work permits, dominated the immigration flows. There was a marked decline in these numbers following the accession of the 10 new EU Member States in 2004, after which Ireland was able to source the majority of its labour from within the EU (Joyce et al. 2008).
In that initial period while migrant workers were employed in most sectors of the economy, they were largely concentrated in unskilled or low-skilled employment in services, hotel and catering and construction. In 2004, 24% of all migrant workers were working in the hotel and catering sector, most of them from non-EU countries (Macri 2006). While there were also substantial numbers recruited to nursing, both public and private, the majority worked in low-skilled, manual, hourly paid jobs despite their having higher mean levels of education than Irish workers (Turner et al. 2008a; Mac Éinrí and Walley 2003)

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