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

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6.6. Conclusion

Having described in some detail the three selected case studies of migrant worker exploitation and the outcomes of same, what then is their significance in the context of this study and what was the learning for the trade union movement from them?
The case of Western Mushrooms is indicative of exploitative practices that were happening beneath the radar at the early stages of significant labour migration and the absence of trade unions in these environments. That absence is seen to be the result of a number of factors, chief among them being the nature and location of these employments. In this case, and in the case of much of the horticulture sector, not only did it involve a small, locally established and run business which would never have had any dealings with unions, the business was also rurally based and its employment arrangements would traditionally have been ‘informal’ at best. In addition, historically the mushroom industry provided part-time employment to atypical workers who were seen as an unlikely trade union constituency. These then were very significant obstacles for trade unions to overcome, but as pointed out by many of the interviewees in this research, there was a moral imperative for them to do so. In spite of this, other than individual union activists operating on a ‘fire-fighting’ basis, as described earlier, unions had no strategically organised engagement with this sector at this time. With regard to professional union representatives, the majority saw their brief as to service their existing membership, and they had neither the scope, nor the imprimatur nor the structural support to take on this extra work. As can be seen from the discussion of the case the professional input from the MRCI, in terms of both time and resources, was enormous. But, as Holgate (2009) would contend, a relatively small, leader led, community organisation such as MRCI had the flexibility to respond in the intensive manner required which a large, professional and bureaucratic representative trade union did not. This case indicates the limitations of the traditional service model of trade unionism and its inability to be effective in dealing with workers in these types of employment situations which are highly labour and resource intensive and which demand flexibility and creative approaches to organising and representation.
While the Western Mushrooms case was resolved to the satisfaction of the workers the length of time it took, the fact that there were a number of hearings and the legalistic nature of the hearings point up the difficulties that many migrant workers have when dealing with the Dispute Resolution Services of the State. These services, which have evolved over time, are really not fit for purpose when it comes to meeting the needs of any cases other than those involving regular native Irish workers employed in unionised workplaces. In very many cases involving migrant workers, particularly in cases of gross exploitation and intimidation, the Dispute Resolution Services fail to meet the six month time limit for lodging a claim; claimants are unable to remain in Ireland for the length of time it takes to process a case; if they are now undocumented they are afraid to take a case; there are language barriers both in completing the application process and in participating in hearings; and they are intimidated by the legalistic nature of the process and the increasing involvement of barristers (Hyland 2005)
By the time the case of GAMA emerged in 2005, Irish trade unions were much more aware of exploitation of vulnerable workers and they were endeavouring to engage with many of the areas where informal practices were the norm and where exploitation was a regular feature, areas such as agriculture, hospitality and the cleaning industry. While most unions were still operating within traditional structures, some had set up specialist units, employed specialist organisers and were working with NGOs in efforts to reach such workers. The union movement had taken some comfort from the fact that the worst cases of exploitation that came to light, such as that of Western Mushrooms, occurred in employments and sectors where there was no union presence or knowledge thereof. The perception was as discussed in Chapter Five, that this lack of union availability was the major contributory factor. Thus, the theory was that, in situations where there was a union presence and particularly where the migrant workers were actual members of the union, no such exploitation could happen. However, the GAMA dispute threw up a new dilemma and indicated once again, albeit from a different perspective, that the traditional union structures and the service model were no longer fit for purpose as a one-size-fits-all approach. The unions in this case were found wanting. Concerns had been raised and passed on, there was awareness from a number of sources that there were issues and yet the case had failed to register and be dealt with at any official level within the trade union movement, other than through BATU’s once-off efforts which came to naught. In spite of evidence to the contrary, there appears to have been a complacency based on the belief that the company’s being apparently pro-union meant workers were protected. Even Brendan O’Sullivan of BATU, commenting subsequently on the attitude of its members displayed a level of cynicism:
All the bricklayers in Gama were Irish. They were the highest paid bricklayers in Ireland at the time, they earned around €150,000 - €160,000 a year, massive money. To be blunt about the thing, they (GAMA) obviously kind of bought off our people, they paid them extremely well so they wouldn’t have any hassle (Interview, 2013).
It is clear that there was great difficulty in getting at the truth and addressing the situation. As one interviewee pointed out not everyone had access to the Dáil chamber and Dáil privilege to bring their concerns to political and public attention (Interview, SIPTU Official 1, 2013). But if the unions had a more active presence on the ground, made greater use of interpreters and engagement off-site, had the back-up of stronger support structures and greater inter-union co-operation, they may have been more effective earlier.
The Irish Ferries dispute which came hot on the heels of GAMA probably presented the biggest test for the Irish trade union movement that it had encountered since the 1913 Lockout. It involved what had been feared and predicted by some – displacement, gross exploitation, and a race to the bottom – a perfect storm! It was the pivotal historical moment that determined the positioning of the Irish trade union movement on the issue of migrant labour. Irish unions could well have taken the approach of many other trade union movements, not least some British unions in 2009, of ‘Irish jobs for Irish workers’ and there was certainly an element of support for that position. But the unions did not go down that road. Instead they took a nuanced approach presenting the issue of the ill treatment of the Irish workers alongside the proposed exploitation of the migrant workers. The call was for fairness for all. It was pivotal in terms of the development of public opinion and served to diminish the possibility of an anti-immigrant political movement gaining traction. It could so easily have gone the other way. The result of the dispute from the trade union movement perspective was more mixed. Yes, it had some level of success in the short term with the positions of unionised Irish workers being maintained, minimum wage for the agency workers agreed and negotiation of stronger legislative protections for migrant workers achieved in the partnership agreement. But ultimately there was a failure to maintain a union presence in Irish Ferries and to have the agreed legislative reform implemented.
So, what’s the legacy? Ultimately, I’d say I doubt there is one. So, could GAMA or Irish Ferries happen again? Maybe not in the same way but there’s scope for similar. The truth of the matter is that the state was not fit for purpose; it was not fit to ensure that workers that were brought in here were treated properly and, in many ways, that’s as true today as it was then (Interview, Former National Organiser, 2013).
What is clear from the trade union response to all three case histories featured here is that the hierarchy of the Irish trade union movement saw social partnership, legislative provision and enforcement and its role within that structure as central to the maintenance and enforcement of labour standards for workers, both migrant and native Irish. This was most evident in the Irish Ferries case where, despite the massive mobilisation of both union members and of the general public, the trade union concentration was on negotiated national agreement with no evidence of an attempt to build upon the mobilisation. There is no doubting that such a policy drive was required to improve labour standards to complement the policy of labour market openness so that migrant workers could be successfully integrated into national labour markets in a manner that avoided job displacement and wage dumping. However, the increased focus on negotiated legislative provision and enforcement was concomitant with a decreasing focus on industrial action and participation, and probably inevitably so. Turner et al. point to a possible weakening of union organisation at shop floor level, particularly in the private sector, in recent years as a consequence of the fact that bargaining was taking place at national level (2008b). ICTU’s David Begg sees the process happening the other way around:
I see it differently in that if we were strong enough as unions to organise them all (migrants) we wouldn’t need this type of (legal) protection. It’s only because we can’t solve these problems by collective bargaining that we look for more structured legal remedies (Interview, 2012).
It is argued generally in the literature that no one measure in itself is sufficient to ensure that migrant workers are accorded their employment entitlements and that, instead, a combination of active unionisation, regulation and enforcement offer the best prospect for ensuring that migrant workers are protected from exploitation (Turner et al. 2008b; Donaghey and Teague 2006). Increasingly, following these landmark disputes, Irish trade unions began to recognise that the traditional service model, even when coupled with greater legislative provision and enforcement, was insufficient to reach, and provide protection to, vulnerable workers while maintaining and enhancing employment standards and ensuring against depression of wages, job displacement and the possibility of labour market migration introducing a new social dumping dynamic into the Irish economy. Unions were becoming aware of the need to adapt that traditional model to a more pro-active organisational model which involves making community links, co-operating with NGOs and connecting with workers, particularly low-skilled ones, across occupations and outside, as well as inside, formal structures.
Chapters Five and Six have outlined the position of the trade union movement from the outset of labour migration to Ireland, they examined the challenges the unions faced and the approaches unions took in dealing with migrant workers as workers, as union members and as potential members. Chapter Five discussed the trade union policy response, union attitudes to migration and migrant workers and initial migrant worker organising efforts and barriers to same. The case studies presented in Chapter Six, in particular, illuminate the shortcomings in the union response and it was primarily the issues that emerged in those cases, coupled with the decreasing influence of the union movement, that prompted ICTU and the trade unions involved with migrant workers to re-evaluate their strategies. That process of re-evaluation had actually begun before the GAMA and Irish Ferries disputes occurred but it was those disputes which, while upping demands for greater legislative provision and enforcement, also prompted unions to move more quickly towards the development of those new strategies.
This chapter will now consider union organisational approaches to migrant workers in the context of union revitalisation and the identification of migrant workers as a particular focus in terms of that revitalisation. It will discuss the variety of union approaches, present examples of organising strategies and detail the inclusion measures adopted by unions to encourage migrant participation.

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