Baltic Blacks among Celts

While there has been much talk about how Ireland has had to adjust to the more than 130,000 East Europeans from the new EU member states who registered to work here from May 2004 to date, Dan Bilefsky in the International Herald Tribune (paper copy only) reports how Latvia is emptying, where now “there is hardly a family left who hasn’t lost a son or daughter or mother or father to the mushroom farms of Ireland”. Laima Muktupavela is one woman who left her four children at home to work from 6am to sundown for 215 euros a week, more than one and a half times the average Latvian monthly wage. She wrote a book of her experiences called “The Mushroom Covenant” in 2002, which promptly become a best seller in her home country and won the Latvian National Literary Award that year.

“Baltic Blacks among Celts: Tale of Itinerant Latvian Workers in Ireland” is an excerpt from the book, echoing Roddy Doyle’s “The Commitments,” when it was stated that “The Irish are the blacks of Europe, so say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud.”

While in Ireland, her children felt abandoned, with her 16-year-old daughter Anna sending angry letters in envelopes filled with her baby pictures while her partner, who is now her husband, met someone else.

The area where she lives is now peppered with abandoned houses, their occupants departed to the handful of European countries – Ireland, Sweden, Britain – that opened their borders to the bloc’s newest members when they joined in May 2004.

“In the latest high profile departure,” writes Bilefsky, “Latvians watched with horror last month when the Olympic biathlete Jekabs Nakums announced on television that he was leaving to go wash cars in Ireland.”

With a population of just 2.3 million, the emigration trend from Latvia has been more pronounced because the monthly wage is just 90 lats (130 euros), the lowest in the European Union.

The Latvian government hopes many will return but migration studies suggest two-thirds will never come back. Echoing the Irish 1980s attitude of “would the last person to leave turn out the lights”, Muktupavela says how during the Cold War everyone dreamt of leaving “but the risk is that if everyone leaves, then the country will disappear”.

The Latgale region in eastern Latvia is one of the worst affected where the children left behind are referred to as “mushroom orphans”.

“In September, there was a national outcry when a seven-year-old girl got lost on the way home from school and it was discovered that her parents were living in Ireland,” writes Bilefsky.

And while EU membership has helped spur a development boom in Riga, construction companies complain that there are too few qualified workers, meaning people are being flown in from nearby Ukraine and Belarus with some coming from as far away as Ghana.

There is a crisis in the health service as doctors leave to work in Scandinavia.

But Muktupavela, who is planning to buy a house here, says going to Ireland turned her into an independent person and notes Latvia’s experience has close parallels with Ireland.

“Twenty years from now it is the Irish who will be flooding into Latvia and not the other way around.”

  • Brian Boru

    I think it was madness on our part to agree to such unrestricted immigration between Ireland and 75 million people from the developing world. Irish Ferries shows where that leads.

  • 9countyprovence

    I wouldn’t agree with you there. Irish Ferries is an extreme case rather than the norm. The countries economy is estimated to need around 50,000 immigrants a year to keep it performing. I have a bigger problem with the immigration system in place at the moment rather than the immigrants themselves. If the immigrants are not helped and treated with respect, and recieve a decent wage (at least min wage), then what happened in Paris could be a portent for what may happen here in the not-to-distant future. There would be no race to the bottom if employers had to pay these people at least min wage as they would be on the same footing as everyone else.

  • George

    Brian Boru,

    30 per cent of new houses in the last year were bought by “non-nationals”. Are you telling me that they could get a mortgage if they were on 2 euros an hour?

    Immigrants aren’t to blame for Irish Ferries, Irish Ferries are. The people they are employing
    won’t be working under Irish law.

    Over 20% of those working in the upmarket financial services sector aren’t Irish.

    Considering the economy is based heavily on the financial sector, construction, employment growth and the state gets billions from these people, why is it a mistake?

    Personally, I think it was the best thing Ireland ever did. Forgetting for a second that it might help the gene pool and the next generation’s mightn’t be so close together, it would be completely hypocritical of Ireland not to have done it with its history.

    In the years to come, our Eastern European friends won’t forget who opened the door and welcomed them in first. As equals. Britain and Sweden take a bow too.

    And if you think Prague, Budapest, Krakow etc. are in “developing countries” I honestly don’t know where to start.

  • George

    should read “next generations eyebrows mightn’t be so close together,”

  • Ringo


    as I understand it, even if we refused entry to anyone of the people from the new member states, Irish Ferries would still be in a position to reflag and take people on at a fraction of the minimum wage – simply because they are a seafaring company. There is no connection between the two at all.

  • Kuraaka

    Don’t know anything about ‘mushroom orphans’ personally, really. I’m from Estonia and from my point of view – there’s no point in leaving my country permanently. The economy here is not THAT bad and it is getting better gradually, albeit slowly. Nevertheless, I know many people who go off to Ireland in search of some sort of ‘relief money’ (with every intention to return) and maybe just adventure and experience. A good friend of mine worked in Ireland – twice, actually – for about less than two years and it was a pleasant experience. He spoke good English, made some friends – and some money (though not much) – and is back now. I think it was profitable both ways, for my friend and for people in Ireland. And people who have stayed there that I have heard of, have done so for good reasons, having found a good, qualified job or having established a family, and have really become valuable and contributing members of your society. Many doctors here go to live in Finland for professional reasons and they are greatly valued there. Well, so much about the bright side. Of course I have heard some murky stories, but I really hope that given some time we will be standing on our economical feet more firmly and I think you need not be afraid of us, here in the Baltics, at least. But the poverty here (in certain areas especially) must be fought…

  • “there’s no point in leaving my country permanently”

    I can only speak for friends (about a dozen or so) who’ve left to work in the UK and the ROI from the part of the world I’m presently living in(Hungary).

    All of them see it as a two/three year assignment, getting experience in particular work disclipines which they can’t find at home, developing English language skills and of course, making the kind of money which would be impossible back home.

    This money is still able to buy the kind of property in Poland/Slovakia/Hungary etc that they would never have the chance to do if they remained in Dublin or London. And with family ties also being very strong, the likelihood is that, instead of a settled immigrant community developing, you’re going to get a constant in and outflow of workers depending on your economic situation.

    There are, of course, also a minority of chancers will come, who’ll want to take advantage of your country re benefits etc, but I would guess that they are greatly outweighed by the number of intelligent and hardworking people. Surely it can only be to Ireland (and the UK)’s advantage to have these people helping to further develop your economy?

  • Phil Kirk

    I agree that some employers exploit the workers from Eastern European countries but the majority do give them a fare wage. I pay in excess of the minimum wage to all my employees who include Latvian, Latvian (Aliens) Polish and Lithuanians. I find that although there is communication problems they really want keep their job as they know how difficult it is to find another. I have learned also that there are some lazy people as well as hard working people from the Baltic as they are in English people too. I find it hard to believe that mother can abandon their children but they do. Loose your job in Latvia and you go home kill your children and jump out of the window and kill yourself. It happens. You have to kill your children to save them from being transported into child pornography. Didn’t Latvia want to close all it orphanages about two years ago? Estonia is one of the highest growth countries in the EU. So it proves the EU works. If the Latvian government stopped discriminating against their “Russian” citizens, gave them citizen passport as they deserve they probably would not have anyone left to do any work. (Oh and discrimination is the word) Each country voted to join the EU and obviously did not see the consequences. The Eastern European countries have the benefit of money being sent from abroad to support the relatives of the people working in the west. Cash for nothing is what they are getting. This in turn will give an upsurge in their economies which will encourage people to return home. Most people will save their cash and return to perhaps buy a house or start a business. It was the same when the Spanish and the Portuguese came. The system works. The countries withholding citizen’s passports to their Russian born citizens should be in violation of human rites. It is not their fault that they were born in Latvia. They have lived and worked all their lives in Latvia and contributed just as much as anyone else. I know for a fact that if you were drawn into a war you would want 40 percent of your young men to fight for you. I know of one person who has two children born from two different husbands, one child is a citizen and one is not. Where is the justice in that? The mother would like both her (now grown up) children with her, but it is not possible under the present citizenship system. Ok Ok tell me about the tests and the language test. Most the Latvians couldn’t pass it. It is a bit like the UK citizenship test, most British people couldn’t pass it. I could go on for hours but I should write the book and make it a best seller in the Baltic. My message to Latvia. Forget the past and look to the future. Ok you got occupied for 50 years but the Soviet Union did you some good as well. Look to becoming a member state the EU can be proud of. Sorry for getting off the subject.

  • Daugavas

    “Twenty years from now it is the Irish who will be flooding into Latvia and not the other way around.”

    I guess that makes me a pioneer as I have been living here in Riga for some months now 🙂

    The article is fairly sensationalist and littered with inaccuracies. Most families haven’t lost someone to mushroom farms. The monthly wage is 90 lats should read the MINIMUM monthly wage is 90 lats a month. There are few being flown in from non EU ex Soviet countries as the bureaucracy is too much. Most Latvians haven’t a clue who Jekabs Nakums is so hardly a high profile departure and neither was there a “national outcry” about the kid. I’ve seen 2 black guys in 3 months (not counting the tourists) and neither is from Ghana so I dunno where they get that bit from.

    For all that the article does raise some very serious points. There are big concerns here in a country with a low birth rate and already falling population about the effects of outward migration on things like future pension provision. That said most who I speak to don’t plan on a permanent move, just a temporary one of 2/3 years. Why they move is understandable. The Latvian lat has basically exactly the same value as the UK pound and here a barman/waiter can expect to earn 100-140 a month, a secretary 200, an accountant with a local company 400-600. It is small wonder that many prefer to take the advice of the Village People song.

    Phil Kirk on the language issue I can’t agree with you. Relative to the UK test, the Latvian test is fairly easy and would be doable in a year and the two aren’t comparable. Latvian is an endangered language while English could in no way be described in this way. The problem is that there are many Russians here who don’t even have a basic grasp of Latvian – they don’t speak ANY Latvian at all. The Latvian governments position is therefore no different from that of many other EU countries. Try getting a decent job in the UK for example without English and see how far you get.

  • Brian Boru

    “I wouldn’t agree with you there. Irish Ferries is an extreme case rather than the norm. The countries economy is estimated to need around 50,000 immigrants a year to keep it performing. I have a bigger problem with the immigration system in place at the moment rather than the immigrants themselves. If the immigrants are not helped and treated with respect, and recieve a decent wage (at least min wage), then what happened in Paris could be a portent for what may happen here in the not-to-distant future. There would be no race to the bottom if employers had to pay these people at least min wage as they would be on the same footing as everyone else.”

    9countyprovince, I disagree that it is a special case. The forth coming EU Services Directive will allow companies on land to re-register elsewhere an pay their Irish workers in Ireland the Polish etc. minimum wage instead of the Irish one. This Directive has the backing of the British and Irish governments and the Eastern European governments. This Directive enshrines the race to the bottom into European law, and will nullify all our labour laws including minimum-wage. FG also have questions to answer as to how they reconcile their support for the Directive in the Europran Parliament with their professed opposition to Irish Ferries reflagging in Cyprus.

    And I don’t think you can realistically compare Irish emigration in the past to Eastern European immigration into Ireland. For the following reasons:

    A: There was no social-welfare system to speak up in the 19th century in most of the countries that Irish people migrated to. Unlike Ireland in modern times. The Habitual Residency 2 year rule will eventually expire for immigrants who can then live off the State. And this rule looks like it could be scrapped anyway because of pressure from the PC brigade and the EU Commission.

    B: Ireland is a very small nation, unlike the destination countries Irish emigrants historically mostly went to. This means that a greater % of the native Irish are likely to be displaced by migrant labour than was the case in the US and Britain when Irish people emigrated there. Furthermore, we face becoming a minority in our own country and potentially being partition a second time by people whose first loyalty is not to Ireland. We have experience of this already (ahem).

  • Brian Boru

    I would also point out that on Prime Time on RTE1 the other night, a Polish worker in Ireland admitted Poles are being paid less than Irish workers for doing the same jobs. This is the race to the bottom, and with only 51 inspectors and the cosy relationships between FF/FG and fatcats, you can bet that exploitation and displacement is rampant in this country. Look at the CSO figures where wages have only gone up 2.7% compared to 4% under Sustaining Progress, and where 10,000 Irish people were replaced with 8,000 migrants.

  • Kuraaka

    Sure, Brian Boru, I understand your concern for becoming a minority in your country, because we share it. Which brings me to the language issue here in Baltics. In a short space of time in 50s and 60s we were flooded with Russian workers/Soviet immigrants who really didn’t consider themselves as immigrants as we were within one great big empire and didn’t learn the language spoken here. You may call areas in North-Eastern Estonia and Latgale province in Eastern Latvia a sort of Soviet plantations. The picture before Soviet occupation was completely different. The Russian minority here in Estonia was tiny and confined to the shores of Lake Peipus, having arrived there due to religious persecution in Russia already in the 17th century, when Estonia was under Swedish rule. These Russians constitute a more or less indigeneous minority here, having their own special customs and traditions.

    So all these problems have 100% their roots
    in Soviet occupation. Any good that it has done to us? I fail to perceive it. All good has come to us only through our own efforts, what we still managed to do and preserve within the Soviet Union. Industry development? Obsolete and useless by now. And even then – the scheme was as follows: the built the factories here, brought in the workers, brought in the raw material even and out went the products. Nothing in it for us. All that was left to us was waste and… monoglot Russian workers. Believe me, Soviet occupation was nothing but a useless and wasteful affair – at best.

    Of course those Russians perceive that they contributed to the society and are now unjustly discarded and left destitute. The problem is, they contributed to the Soviet society, monstrosity that is long gone now, here at least, and not really Estonian, Latvian etc society. Who is to blame – not us, not them, by any account. Well, now is their chance to become a part of Estonian society, of which they have never been a part of previously.

    So it’s simple really. It is doing what was left undone before. Learn the language, take the test, pass the exam and you’re done. Pretty normal process, I think. It was just not normal that they were not required to do so before. To call this requirement a violation of human rights is outrageous and a cheap propaganda trick.

    And I do think we are actually pretty lenient in their ‘naturalisation’ policy, e.g Russian ‘aliens’ can participate in local elections. We also want them to become proper citizens as fast as possible, but that can only happen on account of their own efforts. You cannot call somebody a citizen of Estonia who has no knowledge of Estonian whatsoever – is that a violation of human rights? They have to overcome their own Soviet legacy.

  • Phil Kirk

    In all honesty why does everyone want to protect their language and cultures? Britain is a massive multiracial society and I could only wish that one day we all spoke the same language and no one had passports. We could all be world people. Free to live and work where we pleased. Everyone helping everyone. Not worrying about imposing our will on other nations or changing others to our religions. Wonder what the terrorists would do then. If only the countries that waste so much could give more to those developing countries without thoughts of taking from them in the future. With so many people leaving the Baltic its no wonder that the middle generation would like to see the Soviet Union condition return. Obviously without some of the problems.

  • Brian Boru

    Phil Kirk, it’s all very well allowing some immigrants in, but too many creates French-style problems. And NI isn’t exactly a shining example of a tolerant multicultural society. We don’t want the societal breakdown seen elsewhere. The South has been a remarkably stable political entity since the Civil War in 1923, and our economy was performing fine before large-scale immigration of the last 8 years. What is happening now actually threatens to increase racism, creating a resentful Irish workforce that has been displaced or is finding its wage-rates depressed by cheap labour competition. In mainland Europe this has led to the rise of the Far Right, primarily because the so-called mainstream parties have been seen as living in an Ivory Tower on immigration and ignoring the legitimate fears of the original population for their jobs and national identity. In a democracy the politicians should listen to such concerns. Sadly it is all too common – especially in Southern Ireland – for the elites to dismiss all criticism of immigration as “racist”, “xenophobic” and “fascist”. This prevents the legitimate concerns being addressed in an open debate, which foments the kind of frustrations that has spawned the rise of the Far-Right in mainland Europe.

    So our politicians are actually promoting racism – however unwittingly – by pressing on in this stubborn and dangerous way. It is not racist to want to protect your jobs. The Irish people had to wait 85 years after independence to earn high wage rates. We should not be forced into a race to the bottom in working conditions and wages just to line the pockets of fatcats like the bosses of Irish Ferries, and the other latter-day William Martin Murphy’s waiting to copy the I.F. model.

  • Phil Kirk

    Brian Boru The race to the bottom is the fault of lack of control by the government bodies that should protect all workers from discrimination. To play it fair all workers should be offered that same rate of pay. Migrating Baltic workers should not settle for less than the going rate and then you would not get into a dangerous racist predicament. Fat cats are nothing to do with it. They can only be created by the people they employ. That’s why the Baltic States are in such a state. “Estonia accepted” I once asked a person who is being exploited in Latvia what would happen in Latvia if no one went to work tomorrow. She said “they would give our jobs to someone else”. I said “NO! if NO ONE went to work”. She did not know. Fear came over her like I have never seen. One thing is a proven fact that all humans have in common and that is fear and greed. Every body is greedy for something and every body is frightened of something. The Baltic’s have the strength the change the way that things are going. But they do not remember about solidarity and unity. At a now 7.5 percent inflation rate the Latvians think that is great. But they are on a hiding to nothing. As I said earlier there are so many issues. I see that now they are “Violating Human Rites” by banning gay marriages etc and this is against the EU constitution. I read that about 100,000 Aliens are now citizens. They Latvian government don’t realize that the only reason they became citizens was to leave Latvia and come to the west. If enough Latvians leave Latvia that means that there will be a majority of “Russian” Aliens and then when the elections come round (as long as they are straight and democratic) that a “Aliens government could be elected) WOW! Could that really happen or is Latvia not a democracy? The EU should remove Latvia from the Union and let them get on with it. Issues like who has arrived in EU countries to find a job and get a better life can be resolve. We had about 70,000 illegal’s before so what does it matter. Catch a few deport them and they are back in a month or so. It’s the same now but not so many. People know that governments have budgets for certain issues and they exploit it. I think that in history Racism is born out of fear. If all employees accepted the same wages and did not work for less than the minimum wage then there would be no reason for fear. I know a firm in the UK that can save me 12.5% of my monthly wage bill. But I won’t use them because it intimidates workers by only giving 3 months contracts at a time. How can an employer expect a person to be loyal and dedicated to the company if they can only expect 3 month work? I respect what people come to England for and it does not matter to me if they go back or stay. I would like them to stay. They are excited at the prospects of becoming Capitalist (for want of a word) earn good money for a fair days work. I respect their courage in giving it a go. I respect the fact that they send cash home to look after a relative or support their families. We can learn a lot from people from the Baltic. Only if we open our eyes. Sorry for going on

  • Brian Boru

    Well if Ireland was as large population wise as England I wouldn’t be as worried about being swamped. Also immigration on this scale since Enlargement to the UK is hardly going to displace the native workforce to the same degree as the population there is 15 times bigger than in the ROI.

  • barnshee

    Just LOVE the whines . This arises from the enlarged EU– get used to it -discomfort caused by EU membership —HaHaaaaaaa

  • Eric

    I love her daughter I love her!