13 March 2006

Trade union workers being displaced by low-wage non-union labour


SIPTU members are sacked in Kildare, as Irish companies seek to engage low-wage workers

by Scott Millar
Thursday, March 2, 2006

Twenty two members of the SIPTU trade union have been sacked at a construction firm in Rathangan, Co Kildare. Their union claims their sacking is part of a workers “displacement” programme, being conducted by the firm, Doyle Concrete.
Mediation talks between the company and SIPTU began on Tuesday 28 February.
Anthony Lawlor, who was sacked after 13 years working at Doyle’s said: “Early last year the company hired five Eastern European lads. The starting rate for Doyle’s Concrete was €10.50, most people were on around €13 an hour. But they had these Eastern European guys in on €8.50 an hour and they weren’t paying them over time rates on fixed contracts of 50 hours. I approached management to ask them did they intend treating the new workers on the same basis as their colleagues. They said they did and their was no hidden agenda”.
In September last year, Lawlor and three other long serving workers were laid off by the company. SIPTU members at the company went on strike in support of their colleagues. After a seven week strike the Labour Court ruled in favour of the workers and made a recommendation that all workers, whatever their nationality should have the same wages and conditions.
Last month the company said it was officially closing it’s Doyle Concrete business, which made kerbs and other concrete castings. However in the run up to this decision the company transferred it’s non-union staff, including the new lower paid Eastern European workers, to another company, Doyle Steelite metal fabrication company. Both companies are based on the same site and are owned by the same family. Until this year workers regularly transferred on a daily basis between the two. A separate Steelite entrance was built since the beginning of this year.
Some of the workers sacked had over 30 years of service at the business and say it will be impossible to find other work in the local area. Lawlor said: “the remaining workforce has gone from one that was mainly unionised to largely non-union. They are after discovering how easy it is to replace us with cheap labour and are trying to crush the union”.
Doyle’s would not comment on the closure that they have blamed on the previous strike action.
Trade unionists say similar stories to those of the Doyle Concrete workers lie hidden in last weeks Central Statistics Office figures. These showed a drop in Irish national manufacturing jobs by 19,000 in the 12 months to November last year. Non-nationals took up 7,500 of these jobs. A net of 800 Irish national jobs also went in the catering sector. Evidence arriving to the trade union movement indicates that it is those workers with a long service history, which usually means a rate of pay that has increased over years, which some employers are most eager to displace. Conversely it is often such workers that find it most difficult to retrain or motivate themselves to find new forms of employment. Such workers are also the most likely to be unionised.
Mike Jennings, SIPTU Eastern Regional secretary, “Pure greed is what is driving this. It doesn’t do anybody any good to tell people it is all a figment of their imagination, ignore the problem or dismiss it as mere anecdotal evidence. Unfortunately the reality is displacement is happening. It is still a minority of employers but it will become impossible for competitive reasons for decent employers not to go down that road if we do not recognise it and confront it”.
The first workers to suffer widespread displacement, in what trade unionists have termed as the ‘race to the bottom’, are already employed migrant workers. Largely non-unionised they must now compete with others willing to be paid less and accept lesser conditions.
Trade union membership by migrant workers is often strongly opposed. Cavan Box Company started to employ Lithuanians and the union attempted to organised them. Recently the company is hiring only Poles. The company is refusing to operate the check off system of deducting union dues at source for the new workers. The new workers claim to be being paid less than their Irish counterparts.
A survey by the Irish Migrant Rights Centre has also shown the effects that the displacement of Irish mushroom pickers by workers mainly from Latvia and Lithuanian has had already. Their 2005 survey found that piecework payment rates in the industry now meant that a worker had to pick 53 per cent more mushrooms in an hour to reach the minimum wage than they had to two years ago. Eastern European workers are now being displaced in some farms by new Asians workers.
SIPTU national organiser Noel Dowling is clear that a dual trade union strategy of persuading government to enforcement existing legalisation and organising the new work force is necessary. He said: “The trade union movement must seek to organise the new work force. If exploitation, by that I mean paying less to foreign workers than their Irish colleagues can be dealt with displacement is no longer a problem. The real difficulty in even telling this story is that it is portrayed as xenophobic. In fairness to employers they will happily exploit people regardless of their nationality. What we are trying to do is ensure all people irrespective of background employed here should be on the same wages and conditions that people have fought to establish”.

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