Labour mobility

The Plight of Polish workers in Ireland

, by Elisabeth Lannoo

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The Plight of Polish workers in Ireland

On May 1st three additional countries, Finland, Portugal and Spain, opened their borders for workers from new EU member states. They have joined Ireland, United Kingdom, and Sweden, which had already opened their labour markets upon the entry of the Eastern and Central European member states on May 1st 2004.

In those countries, Polish, Hungarian or Baltic nationals can apply for a job freely: they do not require a work permit. According to the European Commission’s report, all parties have benefited from that decision. Over the last two years, the economy has grown more in these countries than in other EU Member States. Though the number of workers from Central and Eastern Europe has noticeably increased, there has been no massive influx as some had feared. Ireland saw the largest share of European migrant workers: 3.8 % of its total work force. I wanted to check how things worked in practice and went to Ireland last April.

One of the first people I met in Dublin was Paweł, a construction worker from Poland. He came to Ireland in August 2004 working for a Polish company. But after a few months he was told by a representative of the trade union that the company was not paying him the minimum wage.. The union also helped him to find a new job with an Irish company where he gets the same wage as his Irish colleagues. Paweł now tries to assist other exploited construction workers from Poland. He told me about some colleagues who were promised a contract when they started working,but after a few weeks, the employer refused to sign. The workers were fired and could not claim money, since they had no proof that they had been working. At SIPTU, the biggest Irish trade union, they receive similar complaints everyday. The trade union tries to inform migrant workers about their rights,distributing leaflets in eleven languages at construction sites with an overview of minimum wages per speciality. It also takes on cases of individual workers. The trade unions are often the only line of defence of the migrant workers, but cases of exploitation are manifold.

Trade unionists and social workers claim that the Irish government has failed to inform migrant workers about their rights upon arrival. Only recently the employment and education department, FAS, has launched an information campaign towards migrant workers. FAS has made leaflets and DVDs in all the languages of the new EU member states, informing people before coming about the labour market and about life in Ireland. They also warn that without knowing English, it will be difficult to find a job. But the large majority of migrant workers in Ireland are still not informed about their rights.

There are positive stories to be told as well, such as the case of the slaughtering plant Slaney Meats, where more than half of the work force is non-Irish. They are getting paid exactly the same as the Irish, and are even being offered contracts and education in their own language

The case of Ireland is interesting. It shows that even by opening borders, exploitation of migrant workers does not stop. Labour inspection and trade unions still have an important role in exposing those cases. The experience of Ireland also shows that it is of utmost importance to inform both migrant workers and local people about the rights of the former. Let us hope that the other European countries, which are admitting those workers only now or will open their borders only the next few years, will draw on the experiences of the Irish and try to avoid the same mistakes.

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