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

Migrant workers in the mushroom industry

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6.2. Migrant workers in the mushroom industry

From early in the migration cycle there was some concern about exploitation within the horticulture sector, most particularly in the mushroom industry which was a substantial employer of migrant workers. By 2001, migrant workers constituted 70 per cent of all mushroom farm workers (Bord Glas 2002) and that figure continued to rise with MRCI estimating that, by 2007, it stood at approximately 95 per cent. The typical profile of a mushroom picker at that point was that of a woman in her 40s, employed under the work permit scheme, from Eastern Europe, primarily Lithuania or Latvia, and with little or no knowledge of the English language.
The mushroom industry in Ireland had traditionally been characterised by a predominantly female workforce with poor wages and working conditions. In the early years of the industry when there were large numbers of small mushroom operations, the majority of the workforce consisted of local part-time pickers, mainly housewives and others in need of extra income. Even in those early days, the industry operated informal and poorly regulated work practices including payment on the basis of quantity of mushrooms picked as opposed to a set hourly rate. As the industry developed so did the size and scale of most of the farm operations and the part-time nature of mushroom picking changed with greater numbers of full-time workers required. As this growth in the industry coincided with the early days of the Celtic Tiger, mushroom growers found it increasingly difficult to locate an ample supply of cheap labour to meet the new demands on the scaled-up farms. Thus, from 1999 they looked to recruit mainly non-EU workers and used recruitment agencies to source them. Within a period of two to three years the majority of workers in the industry were migrant workers brought in on work permits (Arqueros-Fernández 2009; 2011; MRCI 2007; Department of Agriculture and Food 2004)
The rumblings with regard to exploitation and abuse of migrant workers in the mushroom industry were very difficult to substantiate as mushroom plants, by their nature, were located in rural and isolated areas; workers were largely non-English speaking; they were employed under the work permit scheme which tied them to the specific employment and employer and the sector was almost entirely non-unionised. However, some cases did come to light and to the attention of the state’s dispute resolution services, largely through the efforts of individual trade union activists, community workers, Citizen Information Centres (CICs) and NGOs, most particularly the MRCI. Many such cases are outlined in reports such as MRCI 2006b; Hyland 2005 and Conroy and Brennan, 2003

6.2.1. Western Mushrooms

The specific case history detailed here is pre-EU enlargement and exemplifies the vulnerability of migrant workers employed on work permits in the horticulture sector and the scope for exploitative employers to take advantage during the initial wave of immigration when the state was ill prepared to identify, monitor and penalise such employers and when trade unions had little or no presence in the sector. The facts of this case are taken from the very detailed records of the MRCI which dealt with it on behalf of the workers but it has been necessary to remove any identifying information as the final resolution of the case required the workers and their MRCI representative to sign a confidentiality agreement. All names and geographical details have been changed. Information has also been sourced from the Irish Times and the Farmers’ Journal but specific dates and names of journalists withheld for the same reason.
The case concerned a mushroom plant, Western Mushrooms, located in the west of Ireland, which in 2000 entered into a collaborative venture with another mushroom plant. The venture proposed to create 80 jobs in the area, which was an unemployment black spot, and also to provide opportunities for local formers to develop their own satellite mushroom ventures. It received a funding investment of over £3 million in 2000, which included substantial funding from Údarás na Gaeltachta and the EU as well as some private investment (Farmers’ Journal, 2000). However, as early as 2001 the plant was importing labour from Eastern Europe and, indeed, at a Rights Commissioner hearing in 2005, the barrister representing the company, in an effort to show its positive employment credentials, stated that it had employed 242 workers from Eastern Europe since 2000 (Irish Times, 2005). It is understood that there were approximately 50 migrant workers employed there at any one time.
Official claims of exploitation first came to light in 2004 when a group of thirteen Latvian and Ukrainian workers, most of whom were women, approached the local CIC for help. The majority of them had been working in the mushroom plant for less than two years, though one worker had been there since 2001. At this point they were no longer employed there, having either left voluntarily or been let go. All were undocumented and in great fear about their illegal status in the country. The CIC put them in touch with MRCI, which supported them to find accommodation and acquire temporary work permits while they sought work. MRCI also provided them with legal support and began to put together a case on their behalf. The workers’ stories were of working days of 16 and 17 hours, six and seven day weeks, without overtime or holiday pay, receiving average hourly wages of between €2.20 and €2.50, being exposed to chemicals without information or protective clothing being provided and a being subjected to a tyrannical work regime. “It was like a penitentiary” said one woman. The workers had been accommodated by their employer in a house that had a total of 17 occupants, all of whom were employed in the mushroom plant. There was one shower, and a small kitchen and living area. Deductions were made from their wages for utilities. The accommodation was located five miles from the nearest town and the closest shop was an hour’s walk away. They were bussed to and from their work. This gave the employer substantial social control over every aspect of their lives, far beyond the workplace. All had been recruited in their home country either directly by the employer or through an employment agency. It became clear that when initially recruiting the workers, the employer routinely only applied for work permits for a four to six month period. The workers, who were recruited on the basis of a year’s employment, were largely unaware of this and only discovered it when their permits lapsed. The employer then sought payment of €500 from the individual workers to have their permits renewed and the renewal process was very unclear, leaving the workers generally uncertain as to whether or not they had a work permit and therefore very concerned about their legal status.
This ambiguity around work permits was the greatest contributory factor to the workers’ sense of vulnerability and gave the employer a great deal of power over them. The majority of them spoke no English and, though they had been promised English language lessons when they were contracted, these had never happened. “The employer feared us learning English in case we said anything to outsiders about our working conditions” was one woman’s observation. Thus it was very difficult for them to get information on their status and their rights and entitlements as their only source of information was their employer. They had never heard of the concept of a ‘bank holiday’ until after they had left the farm. PRSI was deducted from their wages every week but when they contacted the tax office after leaving the mushroom plant, they discovered that there was no record of any payments made. There were some Irish workers on the farm with whom they had little or no contact, and who were treated differently, as in they generally worked regular hours, did not do overtime and got every second weekend off.
Western Mushrooms had been inspected by the Labour Inspectorate three times between 2001 and 2003 on foot of receipt of complaints (no details of source of complaints). It is clear from correspondence seen between the labour inspector and the employer that a number of serious irregularities were found in relation to record keeping and health and safety (e.g. poor employee records, incomplete work permit records, payslips not itemising deductions, no health and safety statement). The Labour Inspectorate requested that these matters be dealt with but there were no penalties and Inspectors filed positive reports on the employment on all three occasions, stating that the company was in compliance with regulations. While it is not clear what level of investigation was carried out, it is MRCI’s understanding that the approach taken by the inspectors was to inspect the premises, examine the records and interview the employer but that no migrant workers were ever approached or interviewed.

6.2.2 The industrial relations process

In July 2004 the thirteen former workers took cases through MRCI against Western Mushrooms to the Labour Relations Commission, the Employment Appeals Tribunal and the Equality Tribunal. These were thirteen individual cases with claims of a total of seventeen breaches of employment law, many of which applied to all claimants. They covered:

  • Discrimination

  • Harassment and victimisation

  • Breach of equal remuneration for work of equal value

  • Requirement to work excessive hours

  • Denial of basic entitlements under employment protection

  • Refusal to furnish copies of work permits or information on work permits

  • Breach of health and safety

  • No contracts

  • Unlawful deductions from wages including payment for work permits

  • No overtime

  • No Sunday premium

  • Unfair dismissal

  • Constructive dismissal arising out of victimisation

  • Payment below statutory minimum wage

  • No holiday pay

  • No annual leave

  • No sick pay

Western Mushrooms vigorously fought the cases over a period of eighteen months which involved a number of hearings and adjournments with barristers representing both sides. All thirteen cases were eventually settled out of court in November 2005 and a confidentiality agreement was signed by both sides in relation to the facts and terms of the settlement. While the terms of the settlement could not be revealed, it was the case that the thirteen appellants were happy with the outcome though disappointed that they had not got public vindication. As one woman said “I’m not a mushroom picker now but a human being”. This was the first collective case ever taken within the mushroom industry and was central to MRCI’s continued engagement with migrant workers. It was also central to its establishment of a Mushroom Workers Support Group and to its subsequent collaboration with SIPTU in establishing support structures. These developments will be discussed further in Chapter Seven.

6.2.3. Where were the unions?

As previously stated, this was not an isolated case of exploitation but was instead indicative of practices within the horticulture sector, particularly the mushroom industry, which were coming to the attention of Citizen Information Centres, individual union officials and activists and NGO representatives at local level but were not yet impacting at national level. But trade unions had no presence in the horticulture sector, so in so far as these types of cases of exploitation were coming to the attention of trade unions, it was through informal contacts with individual activists, on a fire fighting basis as opposed to any concentrated organising initiative. Many officials did not want to know; they did not have the scope to take on this type of labour intensive work on top of their existing work schedules, so it is not altogether surprising that an NGO such as the MRCI ultimately became involved.

The MRCI, because it was a small organisation, could respond to things very quickly. A union, however, has to question if it can divert resources to this issue when it’s fighting other battles. It has to ask – are we really going to succeed in organising restaurant workers or agriculture workers if we do divert resources? Those are tougher questions for unions than for the MRCI because that’s what our mission was, at least initially (Interview, MRCI Officer 2, 2013)

It also appears to indicate that the state took little interest in ensuring good employment practices and conditions within employments in which it was investing substantial amounts of public monies. Indeed, a reading of the Department of Agriculture & Food’s Mushroom Taskforce Report (2004) taken alongside the fact that the fourteen member mushroom taskforce did not have a single worker representative on it, would seem to support the view that the employees within the industry were seen as mere units of labour.

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