From Socialist Voice, February 2006

Workers need to read the warning signs!

As the negotiations for a new “social partnership” deal get under way, the labour movement is faced with many important challenges that will inevitably have a significant impact on the whole future of the trade union movement.
    Workers have heightened expectations in relation to pensions, working conditions, the subcontracting of increasing numbers of jobs, the gross exploitation of immigrant workers, and the almost non-existent enforcement of labour laws throughout the economy, as well as the looming privatisation of Aer Lingus and possibly the ESB. SIPTU has reported an increasing number of cases in which immigrant workers have not even received the national minimum wage; and this abuse is more widespread than just the few publicised cases, such as Gama or the recent case of Irish Ferries.
    SIPTU has given the following examples of abuses now taking place and that form part of the backdrop to the current talks:
    Carrickacroy Mushrooms, Co. Cavan: A mushroom-picker was required to work from 6 a.m. to 7 or 8 p.m., seven days a week, on piece rates that were the equivalent of €3.50 an hour—half the minimum wage. (Her case is now being investigated by the Labour Inspectorate.)
    Irish Ferries: A beautician, Salvación Orge, was engaged on a six-month contract to work on an Irish Ferries ship at a rate equivalent to just over €1 an hour.
    McCann and Sons (Construction): Polish and Lithuanian workers employed on a housing development in Mullingar were found to be getting as little as €4.31 an hour—before deductions!—compared with the minimum rate for the construction industry at that time of €14.74 an hour. The union has also uncovered similar underpayment of Latvian and Lithuanian workers employed by McCann’s at a building site in Clonsilla, Co. Dublin. There have also been reports of Russian building workers working and sleeping on building sites in the Dublin area.
    Unions with a membership in the private sector experience these conditions daily, but it is now clear that the subcontracting of public-sector jobs is gathering pace, which the recent case in Galway has highlighted. This abuse is not something that concerns workers in the private sector only but is the concern of all workers.
    The commitment of this government, driven as it is by neo-liberalism, to the needs and interest of workers can be seen from the number of labour inspectors employed to police the enforcement of labour laws, such as the minimum wage, Working Time Act, etc. In the Republic today there are at present 41 health inspectors to enforce the smoking ban, approximately 50 dog wardens, more than 200 agricultural inspectors, and 700 tax inspectors, but only 21 labour inspectors (to be increased to 32 shortly). Clearly, enforcing the smoking ban and catching dogs are higher priorities than the lives and working conditions of workers.
    A recent report by the inspectors themselves illustrates how poorly equipped they are to carry out their work effectively, as a result of a lack of resources, training, and staff, as well as limitations on their powers and insufficient legal support. A bosses’ dream situation!
    The average length of service of a labour inspector is fifteen months. This would suggest a very high turnover, which must lead to a lack of continuity in enforcement. The inspectorate is only rarely at its full complement, because of delays in filling vacancies. Clearly, given the high turnover, there is a need for somebody to look at the working conditions of the inspectors themselves.
    Under the circumstances, is it any wonder that unscrupulous employers believe they have a good chance of avoiding detection? They know from experience in relation to tax compliance that they are not likely to get caught.
    And even for the few who get caught and have the misfortune to fall foul of a labour inspector, the penalties for breaches of the legislation are so insignificant as to have no deterrent effect. With fines generally ranging from around €500 to €2,000, many rogue employers believe that non-compliance is worth the risk. They know it pays to break the law.
    The Minister for Enterprise, Trade, and Employment, Mícheál Martin, recently announced that another eleven inspectors are to be recruited. But even at their new strength of thirty-two there will not be enough inspectors to police complex legislation covering 1.6 million employees in thousands of work-places.
    Another area that the labour movement has only recently woken up to but that will have serious repercussions is the Services Directive, now being debated in that toothless body, the European Parliament, which will be voted on in mid-February. Those of us who opposed the Nice Treaty drew attention to the potential dangers in the whole process of closer EU integration for the living and working conditions of workers throughout the member-states. Those concerns were dismissed as nonsense and without foundation. But they still apply to the now “parked” EU Constitutional Treaty.
    This directive will allow not alone a company owned by someone from one of the low-wage countries but also an Irish person to register a company in one of those countries and employ labour from that country here in Ireland. So the Irish Ferries and Ryanair model can be applied throughout large sections of the economy.
    The Services Directive could be enforced as early as June this year, which raises a serious question over the idea floated by the ICTU for an agreement lasting six years. An amendment now being considered to provide for compliance with labour law in the host country would do nothing to protect employment standards. All this would necessitate is the application of the minimum wage—which would quickly become the maximum wage, as we don’t enforce existing legislation.
    The whole process is not about helping “poor eastern European countries” develop, as their economies have been decimated by the application of the policies imposed by the European Union in order for them to gain membership in the first place. There’s no point in having colonies if you can’t exploit them!
    The Irish Ferries dispute has proved that it is nigh impossible to legally enforce Irish labour law on companies registered outside this jurisdiction. Taking the word of a government that has paid lip service to the enforcement of its own laws is a very dangerous and somewhat naïve strategy.
    It is clear that workers are looking for a more dynamic leadership than heretofore. Certainly leading elements in the ICTU are determined to get a deal regardless. Their approach was demonstrated at the meeting of the ICTU Executive just before the big demonstration last December. Leading members wanted the protest called off the day before the march was to take place, with SIPTU holding out and sticking to its course of action. These elements appear to have a blind faith in this government doing something about Irish workers’ concerns.

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