Groundwork: Uniting Ireland’s Mistreated Workers

Fergal Twomey, Corcaigh.

Several CYM members have been involved in efforts by the Independent Workers’ Union to represent workers in the meatpacking industry in Cork, mainly as interpreters and organisers. The meatpacking industry in Ireland, a multi-billion euro export industry, is thus of special interest to us as a microcosm for the realities of industrial work in Ireland and the changes is undergoing, both prior to and during the COVID-19 crisis. Of particular interest, also, is a recent hearing by the Dáil Special Committee on COVID-19 Response relating to the abuse of the rights of workers in the meatpacking industry in Ireland. Edel McGinley delivered a report on behalf of some of the workers that established invaluable data on the deficiencies of workplace protections in the sector.

The Irish meatpacking industry is predominantly staffed by migrant workers who are disproportionately represented in the hazard-prone physical labour involved. Managers and team leaders tend to be Irish or long-term residents, whereas shift workers are in the majority from outside the EU or from lower-income European Union states. There is a hierarchy of nationalities, where the workers from the lowest income countries are assigned to the most dangerous and injurious tasks. The Irish judiciary is also not impartial in this, and migrant workers receive disproportionately lower rewards for their injuries – in the report above, one worker received a mere 2000 euro reward for the loss of an eye.

The Independent Workers’ Union is one of the only non-ICTU affiliated trade union in Ireland. Their niche is straightforward – where there is an injustice, when workers were being failed by social partnership, the IWU stepped in to represent them either individually or on factory level, with the clear and conscious perspective that workers will always need someone who is prepared to take an adversarial approach to further their interests.

Linguistic differences and national differences are exploited in order to pit workers against each other by the bosses – a divide and conquer tactic as old as time. In one factory, workers from one factory believed that workers from another nationality were being favoured due to being given greater overtime – on our investigation, it was discovered that the workers from this nationality were being given greater amounts of overtime – but in contradiction of their contract, they were not receiving a higher rate of pay for their overtime, in contrast to those of other nationalities. Many workers are not confident in their command of English, and are thus forced to rely on bilingual coworkers to interpret for them, leading to constant, and frequently non-accidental and exploitative, misunderstandings. The HSE has violated data confidentiality on several occasions by reporting COVID-positive findings to employers, without first even informing the patient that they are positive.

Colm Burke, a Fine Gael TD, appeared at the proceedings to bat the corner of the employers. He misdirected the legitimate concerns represented by the Migrant Rights Centre and attempted to cast arbitrary and disingenuous doubt on the findings of their report, absolving the companies of their responsibilities and accountability to their workforce. Just as, we, as communists, consider our bread and butter work to be the representation of workers, Fine Gael function as the inverse of that. Their lucrative work throughout their typical career in Law and Commerce is the representation of the interests of financial institutions and enterprises, and they carry that function and purpose into their political careers as well. The way they earn their bread is through showing up, not always consistently or reliably, to hearings such as these in order to attempt to discredit the experience of workers and prevent much-needed reforms from being pursued by the Oireachtas. They are class functionaries to a fault, and no better example can be seen on display than Colm Burke’s performance at this hearing.

Colm Burke is a former senator and recently a TD for Cork North-Central. The area around Cork city is heavily represented in the meatpacking industry, with a dense zone of factories near the city. In the past, Colm Burke was found guilty of professional misconduct and fined for misleading a woman into believing he was taking a case for her when he was not. He strikes out the profile of the traditional Fine Gael member – a solicitor who rose through the party apparatus.

One of the major issues which is in the process of being uncovered by the IWU is agency work. This was rightly raised at the hearing, and is an extremely worrying trend where EU workers are employed as subcontractors rather than direct employees – their wages pass through shell companies in Poland and Romania, and their wages are heavily garnished and driven through unfavourable conversion rates before finally finding their way to their bank accounts. This is part of the fundamentally exploitative nature of the EU and is an intentional loophole – cheap labour, sometimes below minimum rates of pay in industries, but without any of the responsibilities of the employer to the employed, with the profit of this arrangement creamed off the top by a parasitical comprador class that exists to exploit their fellow countrymen and countrywomen in Poland and Romania. The EU is not a companionship of equal nations – it is a prison of nations and hierarchy of nations, where those who lack an entrenched financial position are forced to work to elevate the lifestyles of the wealthy in the centres of finance in Dublin and Brussels.

In the course of the union work CYM members were involved with, we found a particularly bad case where a worker was dismissed for being injured. Many workers are given temporary accommodation (a precious commodity in Ireland’s housing crisis) arranged by their employer. When they lose their employment, often as a result of an injury, union activity, or in some cases failing to pay extortion tolls by gangsters connected with their employers (“placement fees” official and unofficial), they can also lose the roof over their head. The Fine Gael narrative is that they are creating a buoy to life all boats – the reality is that Fine Gael are maintaining the elite, while creating and overseeing criminal loopholes and conditions that are turning Ireland into a modern workhouse, where human beings are treated as disposable objects by domestic employers. We frequently focus, in our political material and writing on multinationals – but the meatpacking industry in Ireland gives an idea of what’s to come in the development course of Ireland’s agribusiness sector, and it is ugly, and it will further plunge the country into the abyss that the establishment parties are generating.

CYM members are required to be part of the trade union movement. Trade union density is declining rapidly amoungst young people as a result of the disastrous policies of the social partnership era and the anti-solidarity restrictions of the Industrial Relations Act 1990. CYM members work in a variety of different trade unions, and veteran trade union organisers like Noel Murphy and Tommy McKearney are a continuing inspiration to many of our members.

The translation work of bilingual CYM members played an important role in unveiling all of this, and it shows that one person can make a difference. We would encourage all of our members to get involved in union activities, and to utilise their organisational and linguistic capabilities to the full to represent those in unconscionable conditions. Only when Irish and migrant workers unite and tear down barriers of language and nationality can the bosses be defeated and the downward trend of wages and conditions reversed.

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