Over 100,000 workers and youth marched through Dublin last Friday as Ireland was shut down in support of Irish Ferries SIPTU trade union members fighting replacement by cheap labour brought in from East Europe.
There were rallies in towns across the country as workers came out on a general strike in support of the National Day of Protest called by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions ICTU).
In his address to the mass rally in Dublin, ICTU General Secretary David Begg said: ‘The purpose of our gathering here today is to express solidarity with the Irish Ferries workers and to protest against:
‘The exploitation of migrant workers; the displacement of indigenous workers; and the Race to the Bottom in pay and conditions of employment that will inevitably result.
‘The circumstances relating to the Irish Ferries case are now well known.
‘Your presence here today is a clear statement that there is a threshold of decency below which we are not willing to allow anyone to be dragged.’
He warned: ‘For all its importance we must realise that this crisis in Irish Ferries is also a harbinger of a larger problem in the wider economy.’
He added: ‘Every person who has not been on the planet Mars for the last year knows that there is:
‘Widespread employment of people from other countries at rates of pay well below the going rate for the job;
‘Downward pressure on wages as a result. In a year when industrial wages should have increased by 4 percent they moved only by 2.7 percent;
‘A big increase in bogus self-employment, particularly in the construction industry, where workers are employed in a manner which gives them no entitlements. There are 23 million people in this category throughout Europe;
‘Increasing evidence of displacement of Irish workers by foreign workers in some industries.
‘The bottom line is that the blame for this state of affairs does not lie with migrant workers. They and Irish workers are the victims.
‘The blame lies with Irish employers and the government, for their failure to enforce and uphold peoples’ rights. That is why we are marching today.
‘Let me also state quite clearly that this is not a march against migrant workers and migrant labour, in general. The Congress banner at the head of today’s march puts the case quite emphatically: Equal Rights for All Workers.
‘As far as we are concerned, nationality or skin colour should not determine a person’s rate of pay.’
Begg slammed the Irish government for opposing the adoption of a European Directive on Temporary Agency Workers.
He added: ‘It is clear that employment agencies are central to the problem because they will be the vehicle by which most displacement will be effected.’
He concluded: ‘Not for the first time, it is the trade union movement that today stands between civilised values and the barbarism of unfettered free markets.
‘I invite all who share our values to stand with us. Whether you are from Warsaw or Waterford, Prague or Portlaoise you will find solidarity, comradeship and support in the ranks of the trade union movement.’
Paul Smith, SIPTU national secretary, told the rally: ‘Our four members have sent a message from the engine room of the Inishmore, they apologise they can’t be here today but they are here in spirit.
‘I thank Irish Rail, bus and ferry workers who have balloted to support us
‘They will not allow slave conditions on Irish Ferries for anyone.’
Referring to the stalled talks with Irish Ferries, Smith added: ‘We discovered yesterday that workers in the Jonathan Swift with no beds, after a 12 hours shift they are going to put them on the Ulysses without rest.
‘The government say there is nothing they can do.
‘There is something I say they can do – join with us and make sure the Irish flag will protect our standards.’
Jack O’Connor, SIPTU president, said: ‘We told the government and employers that we wouldn’t accept this level of exploitation.
‘They wouldn’t listen to us. Maybe they will now.
‘No worker, wherever they come from, should fall below the threshold of decency.
‘We have to say to our government and employing class that what has happened to Irish Ferries workers must never happen anymore to workers in this wealthy country.’
He warned: ‘We are seeing the early days of what will be characterised by the most sustained assault on levels of decency.
‘It’s gone too far. We are going to organise. We can improve our employment legislation and enforce it properly.’
He concluded: ‘We have to declare we are not going to allow those who are afflicted with the disease of profit to destroy what we have achieved.
‘We send them a message “wake up and live in the real world” – enough is enough!’
British maritime union, RMT members from around Britain joined last Friday’s demonstrations in Ireland.
RMT national secretary Steve Todd said in Dublin: ‘It is appalling that ports authorities in Pembroke and Holyhead have failed to ensure that International Transport Workers’ Federation inspectors are allowed access to crews still under siege aboard their own ships, and have effectively turned a blind eye to Irish Ferries’ cavalier disregard of port security rules.
‘I am proud to have taken part in today’s massive demonstration, which should be the starting point for a mass Europe-wide campaign against social dumping.’
News Line spoke to some of the workers as they assembled for the Dublin march.
Stuart Lynch, from government education project Solice, said: ‘We’re here for equal rights.
‘Everybody should be given a chance. Let people come over and work but let the people here keep their jobs as well.
‘The workers on Irish Ferries should keep their jobs. Foreign nationals should be able to come over but for the same money as Irishmen.
‘The bosses are thinking of their fancy houses and posh cars.
‘The unions should bring the whole of Ireland to a standstill, because if they get away with the Irish Ferries instance, it will be the start for every company to do it, which is wrong.’
Tony Donegan, a security guard at Municipal Art Museum and IMPACT trade union member, added: ‘I’m here to support the Irish Ferries workers because I know that what is happening to them is going to happen to me.
‘It’s only a question of time. They will privatise cleansing, roads, toll bridges. It will happen to security, eventually.
‘They’ve done it at City Hall. That used to have security staff like the Museum and now it’s all privatised with Latvians, Poles and others working as cheap labour.
‘We don’t mind people coming over here as long as it’s at the same wage.
‘The government are causing racist problems because they are allowing this cheap labour.
‘They’re playing divide and conquer but it won’t work. People are sick of what’s going on.
‘They want bring the working class to its knees, take away everything we’ve won over the years.
‘There’s going to be a showdown, it’s on its way.
‘The problem is that some of the trade union leaders are hand in glove with the government, that’s why they don’t call people out.
‘That has to stop. The unions have to take their power back, otherwise they’ll lose members, they’ll lose the respect of workers.’
Philip Daly, SIPTU shop steward and machine operator at Georgia Pacific said: ‘I’m here to support the workers on Irish Ferries.
‘I believe they have a valid case. I also believe the government should be involved and bring in legislation so this type of thing doesn’t happen in the future.
‘Until such time as that happens, workers will be exploited.
‘If they can do it at Irish Ferries they can do it at every company throughout Ireland. We’ll all be cheap labour.
‘There should have been a 24-hour general strike today. with everybody out.
‘And it should continue every Friday until our agreements and rights are recognised.
‘We’ve had these agreements for years. We fought for a minimum wage.
‘These people on Irish Ferries would have to work at least 80 hours a week to get a minimum wage which goes against all health and safety.
‘We need our unions to be strong, not be afraid.
‘We need a firm leadership. All the employers are working for cheap labour.’
Declan Murphy, Seamans Union of Ireland member, Irish Ferries, told News Line: ‘We’re here for the future.
‘If Irish Ferries get away with this now, every other company in Ireland is going to try to do the same thing.
‘I’m here for my child’s future. He’s seven weeks old. If this goes on, by the time he grows up he won’t be able to get a job because of the cheap labour.
‘Irish Ferries want to get rid of all their crew and replace them with cheap labour.
‘Every building site in Ireland has cheap labour.
‘It’s coming in everywhere. The government have to do something about it.
‘If people come over here, they have to be on the same wages and conditions – it’s not just pay, it’s holidays, sick pay and everything else.’
Alan Kearns, SIPTU, Irish Ferries, added: ‘The unions should bring the whole country to its knees.
‘Then the government will have to stop and do something about this.
‘This is not just about a company trying to cut costs, its pure greed.’
Lorcan Doody, SIPTU shop steward, Aer Lingus, was with a group of Aer Lingus cabin crew and baggage handlers in uniform on the march.
He told News Line: ‘They tried the very same thing as Gate Gourmet with the catering and cleaning staff at Aer Lingus.
‘They wanted outsourcing but the staff in those sections are standing together and have forced it off the agenda.
‘We want to make sure it doesn’t travel into any other section of Aer Lingus.
‘(New BA boss) Willie Walsh wanted outsourcing and to buy Aer Lingus and because the government wouldn’t sell Aer Lingus to him he upped and went.
‘Irish Ferries was handed over by the government in 1991-92, lock, stock and barrel.
‘What’s happening now is a result of that.
‘Irish Ferries is making money. The CEO is on 600,000 euros a year and he wants to employ foreign nationals on 3.50 euros an hour.
‘It has to be stopped. If it isn’t stopped it will be the buses next, Aer Lingus and Irish Rail.
‘If these public companies are sold off, it will be an Irish Ferries situation everywhere.
‘That’s why we are here. We want to protect our jobs and our children’s future.’
SIPTU member Gerry Mooney, second mate on the Inishmore ferry, said: ‘It’s a disgrace in this day and age we are being displaced.
‘Irish Ferries is trying to replace us with cheap foreign workers on less than the minimum wage here in Ireland.
‘It has to be stopped and it has to be stopped now.
‘We are prepared to take it to the wire to stop it.
‘The whole trade union movement should come out. It’s a good show of force and solidarity, today.
‘We have to stop this now and if it takes another strike, then we’ll have another strike. We’re not letting this go.’
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