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

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4.3. Economic and labour market conditions and post-accession immigration

In order to enable the continued buoyancy of the economy and fulfil the objectives of its National Development Plan (2000), the Irish government stated that in the region of 200,000 new workers, representing 11% of the labour market would be required between 2003 and 2008. However, the demographic trends in Ireland appeared to dictate that the bulk of these new workers would be migrant workers. Therefore, a number of initiatives such as recruitment campaigns and trade missions were implemented in order to recruit overseas workers (FÁS 2008).
EU Accession occurred during this time when the Irish economy was growing rapidly and after a period of almost 10 years of sustained growth (Barrett 2009). May 1st 2004 saw the accession of ten new member states to the EU (EU10)18 under the 2003 Accession Treaty. This EU enlargement heralded a major change in immigration patterns to Ireland with an acceleration in the inflow of migrant workers due to the new member states being given full access to the Irish labour market. Ireland was one of only three existing members of the EU to allow full access to its labour market to the EU’s new citizens from the date of accession, the other two being Sweden and the UK (Donaghey & Teague 2006). This change in legal status and access to the labour market applied not only to new arrivals but also to those who were already resident in Ireland, either legally or illegally.
The ESRI, among others, observed retrospectively that “given the rapidly growing economy and the limited numbers of countries who granted such free access as of May 2004, it was perhaps unsurprising that a large inflow into Ireland from the EU10 commenced” (Barrett 2009: 12). However, the vast majority of commentators, both national and international19 did not foresee the rapid increase in migration from the new EU countries that would occur. An EU Commission study in 200120, suggested that “the impact of enlargement on Ireland will be relatively marginal, with most new migrants opting for Austria and Germany” (Immigrant Council of Ireland 2003: 13). Unsurprisingly, the trade union movement was also taken by surprise. Almost all of those interviewed for this thesis commented on it with remarks such as ‘I believe we were caught very much unawares” and “I think the levels of immigration we had surprised everyone, nobody was really prepared for the issues that emerged, the challenges’. David Begg, General Secretary of the ICTU said:
Maybe (though) it should have occurred to us that this could happen but it didn’t. We should have predicted maybe that the Government would open the labour market here to everybody from day one. But even then, whether we could have predicted from that that it would involve such an inflow of people is another question. Probably not, on the scale of it, I doubt if we would. And, if we did know, what would we have done? We would have tried to do what we subsequently did anyway, that’s tried to regulate it (Interview, 2012).
Not only was Ireland’s increase in immigration from the new member states higher than expected, it was also much higher than that experienced by either Sweden or the UK. The number of EU10 nationals resident in Ireland grew from under 14,000 in 2002 to over 120,000 in 2006. They accounted for approximately half of the jobs created in Ireland after accession with the number of EU10 citizens in employment in Ireland having more than trebled between the third quarter of 2004 (19,500) and the end of 2005 (61,600). However, administrative data collected through the issuing of social security numbers suggest a much bigger inflow. Between 2002 and 2006 over 300,000 PPS numbers were issued to EU10 nationals, with a further 100,000 issued in 2007. The majority (60%) were accounted for by Polish nationals. However, as is pointed out by Barrett and others, these figures overstate the scale of economic migration into Ireland as 1 in 4 of those who received a PPS number never took up work in the country, and many of those who did work here seem to have done so only on a seasonal basis (Barrett 2009; CSO 2007b).
In 2007 nationals of the EU10 and Romania and Bulgaria accounted for 48 per cent of all immigrants in Ireland (Joyce et al. 2008). The majority of these workers were in the construction and manufacturing sectors which employed more than half of the Accession State workforce in Ireland with the hotels and restaurants sector having the highest share at 7.4% (Doyle et al. 2006). The total number of immigrants into Ireland in the year ending April 2007 was 109,500, up almost 2,000 on the previous year and substantially higher than for any other year since 1987 - the year the present series of annual migration estimates was begun (CSO 2007a). The 2006 Census suggested that there were around 420,000 non-Irish nationals in the Republic at that time, which represented almost 10% of the total population (4,239,848) with the vast majority of those migrants involved in the economy (CSO 2006). This compares with a foreign born population of just 3.2% in 1996. (Doyle et al. 2006). Around a quarter of all immigrants in 2007 were from the ‘rest of world’ (i.e. not EU or USA).
In the ten year period from 1996 to 2006 Ireland’s population grew by over 600,000, an increase of over 17% in total, while in the final quarter of 2007, non-Irish nationals accounted for 355,000, or almost 16%, of the 2.24 million members of the labour force (CSO 2007b). The size of the workforce is itself worthy of note, bearing in mind that only about a million persons were in paid employment in Ireland in 1987 (Mac Éinrí 2005)
Significantly, there was also an increase in the category ‘emigration’ from 2002, to a level of 42,200 in 2007. However, a closer look at the countries of destination – 7,000 to the New Accession States and 19,000 to the ‘rest of world’ suggests that the bulk of these movements were not made up of emigrants at all, but return migrants going back to their countries of origin (Mac Éinrí 2008; CSO 2007a).
Immigrants also made up an important element in a number of higher-level occupations in Ireland. The Irish health service relied on inflows of medical professionals and nurses under the work visa scheme. In 2005 20% of doctors holding full registrations with the Medical Council of Ireland had overseas addresses (not including temporary registrations) while the proportion of non-Irish nurses increased from two to eight per cent over the period 1998 to 2004. There was also an inflow of engineers, architects and computer specialists (FÁS 2008). 60% of all visas issued between 2000 and 2006 were to nurses according to Liam Doran of the INMO in an address to an Immigrant Council conference (Doran 2008)21. In discussing it in interview he pointed out:
The Philippines was making it known that it had a surplus of nurses and Irish nurse recruiters were moving over there in teams from about 2000 onwards. At the peak, in the early 2000s we were recruiting between 2000 and 2,300 nurses from abroad each year, for example 50% of the nursing workforce in the Mater Hospital in Dublin was Filipino and that would be out of a total workforce of about 1,000 (Interview, 2012).
This trend towards a continuous increase in immigration continued until the downturn in 2008 when net migration into Ireland dropped, and it has continued to contract since. A decline in employment and a concomitant decrease in migration began in 2009, with 36,000 non-Irish nationals leaving the labour force between the second quarter of 2008 and the second quarter of 2009. By the second quarter of 2010, a further 49,000 non-Irish nationals had left the labour force, 18,600 of whom were EU10 nationals (See Figure 6 below).
Between Q1 2008 and Q1 2009 the unemployment rate of migrant workers increased markedly in all OECD countries but most particularly in Ireland (eight percentage points compared to three percentage points in the EU-15) where the recession impacted disproportionately on Irish migrant workers. In a paper to the European Migration Network Barrett and Kelly found that while the employment of Irish nationals fell by about 10 per cent from the onset of recession; the fall for immigrants was 26 per cent. The most severe impact appears to have been on nationals of the new member states (NMS), which is consistent with a general finding of poorer labour-market outcomes for this group (Barrett and Kelly 2010).
Figure 6: Immigration and Emigration, 2005 – 2010

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