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

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5.6. Conclusion

The Irish trade union movement was already under significant pressure when it was confronted by the issue of labour migration in the mid-1990s. Though still part of the tri-partite partnership process with some political influence, it was suffering a decline in membership and bargaining coverage, an erosion of traditional union structures and a growth in employer hostility to trade unionism from both the FDI and the small firms sector. Despite this, and unlike many of their European counterparts, while Irish trade unions did not actively support the ‘importation’ of foreign workers, they did not seek restrictive immigration policies either. However, they did become increasingly concerned about the possible ramifications of unregulated labour migration as the numbers grew. They co-operated with government, employers and non-governmental organisations in facilitating the arrival of foreign workers and adopted a rights-based and inclusive policy approach in terms of welcoming them as members and arguing for equivalence in terms and conditions of employment.
However, at that early stage they were not pro-active in recruitment and organisation of migrant workers and, any organisation that was undertaken was, more in the nature of ‘soft organising’ (Dundon et al. 2007) and involved initiatives such as awareness raising, literature distribution and anti-racist campaigns. Also, the response was very much dependent on the commitment and willingness to innovate on the part of individual activists who were primarily engaged in a fire-fighting type exercise. These activists thus dealt with the issue of migrant worker exploitation on the basis of it being a moral and fundamental trade union issue, but did not have the resources or organisational support to engage with these workers in any strategic developmental way.
There were many barriers to the organisation and unionisation of migrant workers, some of which could also have applied to native Irish workers but others, such as language and communication were specific to migrant workers. The particular issue of location of employment was probably the over-riding barrier, in that migrant workers were employed largely in smaller firms in the services, retail and construction sectors which were non-unionised, thus contributing to other issues such as lack of union availability and employer hostility to trade unions.

We asked for workers, we got people instead (Max Frisch, 1972)38
The following chapter takes a diachronic comparative approach to the examination of trade union engagement with migrant labour by considering three case studies involving exploitation of migrant workers which are identified as tipping points within the development of the Irish trade union response. It starts with an exposition of a case within the horticulture sector where there was no union presence, or knowledge thereof, and where the perception would be, as discussed in the previous chapter, that this was a major contributory factor to the exploitation. It moves to the case of GAMA Construction, which had a union presence and where, yet, continued exploitation of migrant workers went undiscovered over a substantial period of time. It then outlines the case of the unionised Irish Ferries, which first brought the issue of displacement onto the union agenda and which also brought both it and the issue of migrant worker exploitation into public discourse. It concludes with an analysis of the three disputes in terms of the trade union role.

6.1. Introduction

Labour immigration to Ireland continued to be market led and poorly regulated and policed up to 2005 and issues of irregular employment, ‘bogus’ self-employment and an increasing use of agency workers were growing phenomena and of increasing concern within the trade union movement. While there were some rumblings about displacement of Irish workers and depression of wages there was no body of evidence to indicate a need for concern (Beggs and Pollock 2006; Doyle et al. 2006). Indeed, a number of studies found that “the evidence of any form of social dumping is neither strong nor persuasive” (Donaghey and Teague 2006: 665). A study of non-Irish workers in the labour market based on an analysis of the third quarter 2005 Quarterly National Household Survey concluded that “the case regarding displacement remains unproven” (CSO 2005). Meanwhile, the IOM report, Managing Migration in Ireland, acknowledged the existence of some exploitation of migrant workers as an issue of concern, but went on to say that overall “to date, there has not been much evidence of the negative effects to which migration can give rise” (IOM 2006: 22).
Yet there was substantial anecdotal evidence and evidence from small scale research projects of exploitation of immigrant workers. This included evidence of abuse of the work permit system, payment below JLC agreed rates of pay and below the national minimum wage, non-payment for hours worked, non-payment of overtime and holiday pay, working excessive hours as well as incidents of bullying and intimidation (MRCI, 2006a; 2006b; 2007; Hyland, 2005; Conroy and Brennan, 2003). As Krings points out “the aggregate results of relatively small-scale research on migrants clearly suggests that, at least some migrants have had to endure exploitative and abusive work conditions” (2007: 47). Also, individual union officials at a local level and representatives from relevant NGOs were regularly dealing with issues of exploitation in areas such as horticulture, hospitality and retail as well as, generally informally, domestic service (ICTU 2005; MRCI 2004; 2006a; 2006b). While some information on these permeated through, they largely remained beneath the radar. The majority of them were happening in non-unionised employments and were being dealt with by officials and activists outside of regular trade union structures. But there was a growing belief, particularly among activists within both unions and NGOs, that if some such incidents of exploitation were emerging, the lack of regulation, enforcement and oversight most likely meant there were many more that had not yet been identified. This view was compounded by the fact that, despite reports of increasing abuses, the level of workplace inspections by Department of Trade and Employment Labour Inspectors had dropped from 8,323 in 2002 to 5,160 in 2004. In the same year only 14 successful prosecutions of offending employers were carried out, with typical fines ranging from €500 to €2,000 (Allen 2007).

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