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



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5.2. Policies and Rhetoric


From the earliest days of migration the ICTU and many of its affiliated unions argued on the basis of a legally framed rights-based approach to the issues raised by the increasing presence of migrants in the workforce. They adopted the same approach to migrant worker employment as they did to employment of Irish nationals, and from early on in the migration process, ICTU called consistently in both public pronouncements and policy documents, for equal rights and entitlements for all. While this policy position was ideologically driven, it was also pragmatic as articulated in the ICTU migration policy document of 2005, which stated that:

The philosophy of trade unionism is that all people are born equal, are endowed with certain fundamental rights and that their labour cannot be treated as a mere commodity in the market system… Justice for immigrant workers should be the concern of all fair minded people. Even from the standpoint of enlightened self-interest, exploitation of a vulnerable group undermines pay and conditions of indigenous workers’ (ICTU 2005, p3).


SIPTU also spelt out its approach in a number of policy documents over the period. A guide for union representatives produced in 2003 stated “Remember: once a person has a right to work in Ireland, then they are entitled to the protection of all our labour laws and the laws covering equality and non-discrimination” (2003: 2). Later it outlined its perceived role as being to ensure that “migrant workers have the same rights and protections as Irish workers” (SIPTU 2006: 21). It went on to state that “the recruitment and organising of migrant workers into the Union is the first step to protecting workers’ rights, both Irish and non-Irish, and helping to create workplaces which respect diversity and are based on equal treatment for all” (Krings 2007: 51). Equally other unions operating in sectors with substantial numbers of migrant workers such as the INMO, Mandate, BATU and Unite articulated very positive messages of equality.
In fact the initial response of the Irish trade union movement from both a rhetorical and a policy perspective was universally positive, though the actual organisation and inclusion of migrant workers did not quite live up to the rhetoric. But it is important to note that there was no ambiguity around this articulated position of welcome, openness and equality; no voices within the trade union movement were publicly calling for any form of resistance to migration or for any exclusionary practices to be adopted. This is consistently evident from all of the trade union policy documents, position papers, press statements and newspaper coverage accessed in the course of this research. A former SIPTU Regional Secretary says:
‘I never came across any opposition of any significance other than the odd person at the back of the room at general meetings who would be heckling the top table. Other than that I never came across any opposition to devoting attention to what people saw as a big moral and ethical problem. And for me, I was by then over 25 years working as a trade union official and it was the time that I felt the trade union movement lived up to its ideals best. I was very, very proud of it’ (Interview, 2013).
A former SIPTU National Organiser spoke of what he saw as the reasoning within the Irish trade union movement for welcoming migrant workers:
We weren’t born fully formed to deal with it but we did try to respond as best we could. We did it not just out of self-interest but for altruistic reasons as well. We felt that exploitation on the scale in which it was happening was an insult to any kind of decency and just couldn’t be tolerated. But we also did it in the realisation that migrant workers had contributed to the revitalisation of trade unionism in Australia, in America, in Canada and we thought that, in time, those workers coming here could bring something to the movement, that it wouldn’t be just one way traffic (Interview, 2013).
From early on ICTU was a partner in the Anti-Racist Workplace initiative, a social partnership public awareness raising initiative which ran from 2000 to 200732 and which also involved the Irish Business and Employers’ Confederation (IBEC), the Construction Industry Federation (CIF), Chambers Ireland, the Small Firms Association, the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Equality Authority. Participants in the initiative committed themselves to working in partnership ‘to promote anti-racist workplaces … and within their own sphere of influence to promote a positive approach to diversity and interculturalism’ (EEA 2005). ICTU also had a North-South Anti-Racist Taskforce and set up a trade union advisory group on immigration (ICTU 2005; Fulton 2003).
I remember one of the first things we did was to get involved in the anti-racist workplace week. That wasn’t, if you like, something that was a response to a groundswell from shop floors or anything. That was a leadership initiative (Interview, ICTU Officer, 2012).
However, despite the articulated commitment to inclusion and the lack of any racist, xenophobic or exclusionary rhetoric or policies, many of those interviewed for this research took quite a negative view of the initial trade union response. It breaks down with about 50 per cent having a positive perspective and 50 per cent negative and there is no discernible pattern in terms of union affiliation or level within the union. For instance of those current and former SIPTU staff interviewed, three considered that the trade union movement had responded very well, while six considered the trade union movement to have responded poorly. This variation in responses applied right across the board in terms of people at all levels and people with differing levels of involvement with migrant workers. At a leadership level while David Begg of ICTU and Brendan O’Sullivan of BATU thought unions responded positively, Jack O’Connor of SIPTU described the response as “lethargic” and Liam Doran of the INMO considered that the unions were too slow in their response. At ‘middle management’ level, one SIPTU representative considered that, “Jack O’Connor and David Begg showed exemplary leadership…. being very clear and neither ambivalent nor protectionist” while a colleague described the response as well-intentioned but poorly thought out. The criticisms generally related to a lack of planning and preparedness on the part of the trade union movement as opposed to any perception of resistance or actual hostility to migrant workers, Mandate Official, “I don’t think there was any strategic thinking around it at all” (Interview Mandate Official 1, 2013).

5.2.1. Opening of the labour market


The Irish government decision to open its labour market in 2004 to workers from the new EU10 member states was, according to Begg, at the behest of, and on the basis of representations by, the business community and did not involve consultation with ICTU. David Begg:
There was no consultation with us about that decision, none, none at all, absolutely none. That seemed to us to be quite extraordinary in a way cos this was done largely at the behest of business… No, we weren’t aware that we wouldn’t be availing of a derogation or that we would take any first moves or kind of steps in the whole thing...So we felt that that was not quite cricket, to say the least of it in terms of what the Irish government did (Interview, 2012).
Added to the unhappiness at the lack of consultation was the fact that the trade union movement had actively supported the Government’s two campaigns on the Nice referendum on EU enlargement in 2001 and 2002 respectively, on the basis that, despite fear mongering, on the part of some referendum opponents, they did not believe that “all these foreigners were going to come here and take our jobs”. However, as Begg explained, that perspective had been predicated on “a uniform approach to the opening of labour markets across Europe, not on the basis of Ireland leaping ahead of the others”. But, despite the misgivings about the process, the unions did not actively oppose the decision and like most other political actors, they did not anticipate the scale of migration that ensued (Begg 2007; Doyle et al. 2006) as David Begg explained:
Whether we could have predicted that it (the opening of the labour market) would involve such an inflow of people is another question. Probably not, on the scale of it. 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. We would have used it as a case, a case that had already been made, for strengthening the regulation (Interview, 2012).
This was a perspective echoed by others, many of whom actually felt at the time that the opening up of the labour market would be positive in that it would dramatically reduce the number of workers employed under the work permit scheme and therefore, hopefully, reduce the opportunities for exploitation. SIPTU’s Jack O’ Connor made it clear that despite the behaviour of the Government, he wouldn’t have supported any kind of union resistance to the opening of labour markets but pointed out that he did argue at the time that it could create problems unless the employment rights infrastructure and the enforcement of it was radically overhauled. In discussing this he observed that there was no support for any such overhaul in the mid-term review of the partnership agreement, Sustaining Progress (2003-2005) because the prevailing view was that the review was simply about the second phase of the pay deal and didn’t relate to anything else and this was the view not just of the employers’ and Government, but of the trade unions as well. ‘We failed to make the employment rights agenda an issue in those talks because of that but also because we failed to make it an issue within the trade union movement and we failed to make it an issue within our own union’ (Interview, Jack O’Connor, 2012).
Some also saw it as an opportunity lost, it being the ideal time for unions to reach out pro-actively to migrant workers, the majority of whom were now free to move employment. SIPTU activist: ‘I felt that post-accession the unions had a great chance to get out there because they were no longer fighting against work permits and I don’t think they even considered what they should do.’ This view was echoed by a Mandate Official: “The whole situation with accession and the opening up of the Irish labour market didn’t see any real strategy being developed at Congress level or even at union level” (Interview, Mandate Senior Official, 2013)
The trade union approach to the opening of the labour market to workers from Romania and Bulgaria in 2006 was quite different and strongly influenced by the fall-out from the high profile Irish Ferries and Gama disputes of 2005 (see Chapter Six). It led the unions to support transitional restrictions on labour at the time; Congress described its core concern at that time as being “to ensure that the movement of workers from poorer to richer regions was beneficial for all concerned, that it did not give rise to the exploitation of migrant workers nor undermine Ireland’s labour market standards” (ICTU 2006: 3). Former SIPTU Regional Secretary:
By then we were dealing with what we hadn’t dealt with in the past, issues of displacement. Employers right across the sector were recognising the exploitative potential of migrant labour. So, nothing against Bulgarians or Romanians, but I think they were unlucky that they came further down the line when we had seen a generosity within Irish society and particularly within the Irish labour movement being exploited. Do I have to mention Irish Ferries? (Interview, 2013).
And so the unions became more cautious in their approach to immigration at a policy level at this stage and saw a managed migration regime as the only way forward. Whether this move by the trade unions was a wise one is questionable in that yes it restricted formal access to the labour market but did not, and could not limit freedom of movement which had the potential to just feed the informal economy and contribute further to exploitation (Krings 2007).

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