Irish Ferries workers are fighting back against the “race to the bottom” as their bosses are trying to mount a major attack on workers’ rights, replacing them with cheap foreign labour.
Two of the company’s flagship ferries, the Isle of Inishmore and Ulysses, have been occupied by workers in protest — they remain stranded in Welsh ports — while dock workers refuse to let the MV Normandy leave Dublin. The trigger for the occupation of the ships was Irish Ferries’ attempt to forcibly remove the workers with armed security staff who had boarded the ships dressed as passengers. The Irish Independent has claimed that Irish Ferries considered using tear gas when officers occupied a ship last December.
At the root of the dispute has been a sustained effort by the bosses to cut costs and boost profitability at the workers’ expense. The company has already saved millions by attacking conditions, but now plans to replace 543 workers with Latvian agency workers. These workers will earn ¤3.50 an hour — half the minimum wage — for a 12-hour working day. However, they will get no leave whatsoever. They will be forced to work on weekends and bank holidays as well as receiving no holiday entitlement.
This is very much in line with the company’s past attitude to foreign workers — in March, it was revealed that Irish Ferries paid Salvacion Orge, a Filipino woman, just ¤1 an hour to work as a beauty therapist on board the Isle of Inishmore. She was made redundant in order to stop the discussion about how badly she was paid, but refused to disembark from the ship — eventually her union SIPTU won her ¤24000 compensation.
Talks between the union and Irish Ferries are now taking place — but even if a solution might be reached, President of the Dublin Council of Trade Unions, Arthur Hall, has demanded that this should not affect the December 9th solidarity demonstration, since it relates to job displacement and exploitation which affect tens of thousands of other workers. He emphasised that it’s not a question of opposing the immigration of foreign workers, but demanding that they’re treated fairly.
“We do not want to see the emergence of social apartheid in this country, where some people make excessive profits at the expense of vulnerable, migrant workers while the rest of us turn a blind eye because we enjoy job security and decent living standards”
It is clear that trade union leaders have become aware that this is not an isolated dispute, but one symptomatic of a more widespread issue of undermining workers’ rights. The SIPTU President said that “Irish Ferries is providing us with a glimpse of the future labour market if neo-liberal zealots succeed in pushing through their Services Directive in Europe”.
The fact that the Irish Congress of Trade Unions called for demonstrations in support of the workers shows that there is a strong sense of solidarity between different workers under attack from the same cost-cutting agenda.