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

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4.6. Conclusion

This chapter has outlined the factors that are considered to have impacted on the Irish trade union movement response to labour migration. These are the character of the immigration, which, as can be seen, changed and evolved over the period considered; the economic and labour market conditions that directly influenced and affected the evolution of the immigration; the political and legislative context through which labour migration was managed and the industrial relations context.
As is evident, while immigration came late to Ireland, it came at an extraordinary speed. The challenge to the trade union movement cannot be underestimated that was created by the newly expanded and diverse labour force which, was not only diverse in terms of ethnic make-up but also in terms of new forms of employment leading to new issues not previously encountered by Irish trade unions. Up to 2004 the majority of labour migrants to Ireland came under a work permit system, targeted at unskilled occupations. Following EU accession of the ten new member states in 2004, the picture changed, with the overwhelming majority of migrants coming from those new states.
The Irish government had given little consideration to the development of a formal immigration policy in advance of the explosion in labour immigration. While there were certainly push factors in operation, market driven employer demand was the most significant factor in Ireland’s transition to a country of immigration. In the 1990s as immigration grew exponentially, Ireland was found to be the second least regulated country after the UK out of 16 European countries (Sweeney 1999; Koedijk and Kremers 1996; OECD Jobs Study 1994). The fact that that immigration regime was lightly regulated and that there were impediments to migrants changing employment, most particularly for those working under the work permit scheme, meant that the environment was ripe for unscrupulous employers to engage in exploitative practices. As evidence of such practices emerged the Government came under pressure from trade unions and NGOs both to provide new legislation and greater enforcement of existing legislation to protect migrant workers, and to maintain labour standards. In response, the Government introduced a variety of legislative measures and the enforcement regime was strengthened. However, the legislative measures were enacted on a piecemeal basis and the actual strengthening of the enforcement regime fell below the original Government commitment.
Chapter Five to follow now narrows the focus to describe and thematically analyse the initial response of the Irish trade union movement to inward labour migration and the issues arising from it.
The previous chapter presented in some detail the four explanatory factors being considered as possible influences on the Irish trade union response to labour migration. It outlined the history of immigration and its character, considered the economic and labour market conditions that pertained from the advent of significant labour migration in the mid-1990s to its peak in 2007 and the subsequent fall-off in immigration from 2008 onwards, as the economic downturn took hold and unemployment grew. It discussed the political context in which migration took place and laid out the political and legislative framework that applied and developed and within which migration took place. It then narrowed the focus to consider in some detail the industrial relations system in Ireland and the trade union position, model and identity. It discussed the erosion of the trade union membership base and the continuing trade union decline as labour migration became a growing feature of Irish society and labour migrants a significant presence in the labour force. Having outlined the possible explanatory factors, this chapter now moves on to build upon the European comparative information presented in Chapter Three to describe and interrogate the initial response of the Irish trade union movement to the prospect and the reality of significant inward labour migration and the issues arising from it. Using the analytic framework as modified in the previous chapter, it analyses the response thematically.

5.1. Context

In Ireland the issue of migrant workers was historically a non-issue for trade unions due to the extent to which it was characterised by emigration rather than immigration. The rapidity of the country’s transition from one to the other took the Irish trade union movement by surprise. The marketplace demand for migrant workers, combined with a grossly underdeveloped legislative and regulatory framework, created a significant challenge to the Irish trade union movement (Mac Éinrí 2008; Turner et al 2008b Krings 2007; 2009b; Donaghey and Teague 2006; IOM 2006) While the trade unions endeavoured from early on to rise to the challenge, there is little doubt but that the initial response, while ideologically driven, was essentially and inevitably reactive.
As already discussed the presence of migrant workers in the labour market brings new issues to the industrial relations table and research has shown that migrant and ethnic minority workers traditionally face particular problems not generally faced by native workers. Historically, throughout Europe and beyond, unions have been concerned about the consequences of labour migration on the indigenous employment market, the concern being that the import of foreign labour will undermine union bargaining power and employment standards (Krings 2007). And there was reason for concern as is evidenced already from Chapter Four, as these new workers were vulnerable to discrimination and willing to accept lower wages and poorer conditions of employment in many cases. The Irish trade union movement was already under substantial pressure when it was confronted by labour migration and the issues around it, in the mid-1990s. Irish unions were faced with that long standing dilemma within trade union movements, already discussed in Chapter Three, namely how to balance the commitment to its existing membership with efforts to protect, and accommodate the needs of these vulnerable new workers and potential new members, the reality being, to quote Mark James (2013)31, an ex-Service Employees International Union (SEIU) official, “trade unions are run by the members we have, not the ones we don’t have yet or the ones we wish we had”. This dilemma was played out in relation to women as they entered the labour market in increasing numbers from the 1970s and it was not one that was dealt with particularly effectively in that case. While the proportion of women trade union members has increased exponentially over the past forty years, their representation at branch level and decision-making level generally remains very low.

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