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.”