From Socialist Voice, November 2006

SIPTU exposes abuse of migrant workers

The gross abuse of migrant workers in the “Celtic Tiger” economy continues to be uncovered. The latest case concerns the exploitation of thirteen female mushroom-pickers from Lithuania by Éamonn Murray of Co. Cavan, a typical gombeen-capitalist mushroom-grower.
    Last January the workers approached SIPTU for help in exposing their appalling working conditions and low pay. When the workers returned from the meeting with SIPTU (having worked the previous night up to 2 a.m. and having to be back on the job at 5 a.m., three hours later) all were sacked by this hero of Irish entrepreneurship, leaving the women not only unemployed but homeless.
    These Lithuanian workers were working seventy to eighty hours a week, working seven days a week and earning on average €230 per week—that is, just over €3 per hour. (The legal minimum wage is €7.65 per hour.) The women also live in accommodation provided on the farm, for which they pay rent to the owner. (Murray, who hails from just across the border, was renting from the farmer.)
    The women’s union took a case for unfair dismissal and non-compliance with employment law, and they won. So far they have secured compensation totalling €390,000. In the latest development, the Employment Appeals Tribunal has found in favour of the thirteen mushroom-pickers under various employment laws. All were found to have been dismissed “for mere membership of a trade union”—a situation that the tribunal described as “flagrantly unfair”—and were awarded compensation of €26,000 each. The other awards related to minimum notice, annual leave, and pay for public holidays.
    The Minister for Enterprise, Trade, and Employment, Mícheál Martin, stated in November that his department had managed to secure more than €1 million in back money for migrant workers whom the inspectors had discovered to be underpaid. He claimed this as a victory for the Government’s strategy of encouraging rogue employers to mend their ways, which, he claimed, was more beneficial than bringing them before the courts. (If the shoe was on the other foot workers would face the full rigour of the law—as the people of Rossport know to their cost.)
    The truth is that one diligent union official secured in one settlement almost half the total that the Government claims it has secured, with its battery of inspectors.
    In a separate case a rights commissioner has awarded €79,000 to four of the employees who worked for previous employers for breaches of the legislation on transfer of undertakings. Two other cases against the same employer are pending with the Rights Commissioner Service. In a lot of cases, winning a monetary award and securing rights is a long and hard process. Many of these gombeen employers choose to shut up shop rather than to pay.
    The SIPTU official who championed the workers’ cause, Irene Donegan, assistant organiser of the Cavan Branch, said: “The decision vindicates the right of every worker to join a trade union . . . Hopefully the decision will mark the beginning of the end of the flagrant disregard for the rights of employees, particularly non-nationals, by rogue employers and will provide inspiration and encouragement to all those vulnerable workers who are reluctant to speak out against exploitative employers for fear of reprisal.”
    A number of Polish mushroom-pickers have also come forward and spoken about their pay and conditions. It has emerged that these workers are also working seventy to eighty hours a week for less than €2 per hour.
    Before the enlargement of the European Union in 2000 one of the mushroom-growers’ associations had a meeting at which it was proposed that the Government should maintain the work permit system, as this provided the farmers with the means of controlling the workers’ work permits.
    There are thousands of migrant workers here in Ireland working and living in very poor conditions, working long hours for much less than the legal minimum wage. The next time you go into your local supermarket or vegetable shop, think before you buy your mushrooms. Who picked them? What wages did they receive for this back-breaking work? Did they get at least the legal minimum wage? Do they work seven days a week? If they are on piece-work, how many kilos did they have to pick to get that €3?
    Many commentators and industrial relations “experts” continue to repeat the mantra that unions are a thing of the past and that workers no longer need to combine. The truth is that only union membership can provide the necessary protection and solidarity to workers; and life continues to confirm this fact.

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