Labour out of step on European immigrants

Labour leader Pat Rabbitte’s call last month for work permits to be introduced for workers from the 10 EU accession countries seems increasingly out of step with the general mood in Europe.
Europe’s trade union movement, the ETUC, has voted for the first time to demand an end to the restrictions imposed on workers and the EU Commission is due to report next Wednesday that that the work limits imposed by 12 EU members (only the UK, Sweden and Ireland didn’t impose restrictions) on migrants have been largely ineffective and counterproductive.

Vladimir Spidla, EU employment commissioner, is expected to argue that labour restrictions have little impact and that flows of workers are driven by supply and demand and that restrictions on labour market access may exacerbate resort to undeclared work.

Rabbitte’s comments that “there are 40 million or so Poles after all, so it is an issue we have to have a look at” can certainly be construed as a naked attempt to play the race card and exploit fears for votes and many in the party, including Michael D Higgins, Joan Burton, and Brendan Howlin, must be wondering in which direction the party is being led.

The Sunday Times reports that David Begg, the trade union leader, has spoken of a labour market of 2m people being “open to one of potentially 200m” as the movement seems to be trying to put across the message that immigrants are taking Irish jobs and putting people out of work. Their solution, like Mr Rabbitte’s, is restrictions on labour mobility, in other words, keeping immigrants out.

This is in marked contrast to the views of John Monks, head of the ETUC, who told the Financial Times (subs needed) that an “overwhelming majority” agreed that the bans drove migrant workers underground.

He said unions wanted to focus on raising labour standards in whichever country migrants worked in. Apparently, many in the Irish trade union movement aren’t listening.

“We think that is a more effective strategy than barriers that aren’t working very well, and simply lead to a big black economy in the country that applies them,” he said.

Ernest-Antoine Seilliere, head of UNICE, the European employers’ organisation, said any remaining barriers should be removed as quickly as possible.

“Enlargement offered ‘old’ Europe a lot of opportunities to invest and buy companies in the new member states,” he said. “Those countries should have access to ‘old’ Europe in terms of employment.”

But all this hasn’t stopped the opposition parties from attempting to make electoral gains at the expense of migrant workers. As the Sunday Times says:

“Last week Fine Gael joined the debate with its own disingenuous wheeze, claiming immigrants entitled to Ireland’s generous child benefit schemes would take up to €150m out of the country each year. The party plucked the figures out of the air, and quickly reduced them, but the damage was done. Unsurprisingly, in the light of this, Irish attitudes are hardening. A recent poll suggested four-fifths of people believe immigration from the accession states should be restricted.”

All this even though any work permit system would only be for a transitional period, renewable up to 2011 at the maximum, when freedom of movement will become compulsory.

The paper quotes Minister for Justice, Michael McDowell, who attacked the Labour party for being “opportunistic, inconsistent, hypocritical, untrustworthy, incompetent, xenophobic and cynical” about immigration. It is a charge that can be levelled equally against the trade unions.

“The genie is now out of the bottle, and there is no going back. Immigration and race will be significant issues in the next general election, and the political parties must not hide from them. They must instead engage the debate with rationality and challenge, like Mr McDowell has done, the insidious creep towards xenophobia that has been set on its way by the trade union movement.”

Martin Mansergh in an article in the Irish Times asks why is it that immigration is suddenly being made an election issue by the opposition parties.

“What has happened to change that attitude? Is Ireland beset with plunging growth, falling wages and soaring unemployment? Are we faced with a situation of force majeure provided for in the terms which we originally agreed? The opposite is the reality. Employment grew last year by a record 89,000 jobs. Unemployment, at slightly above 4 per cent, is the lowest in the EU. Real earnings continue to rise. The steady supply of labour is easing a tightness in the labour market that would otherwise drive up wage inflation and damage competitiveness and jobs….

“To introduce work permits for the few remaining years allowed would suggest a collective failure of nerve. Checking out anecdotal evidence is an entirely inadequate reason for a major u-turn in national economic policy. The extra bureaucracy at taxpayers’ expense would hamper the conduct of business. It would encourage investment, business and jobs to go elsewhere, rather than retard that process. In a short time, it would make the country less prosperous….

“Was a moment’s thought given to what it would do to our relations with Poland and other new member states? Ireland would lose all the goodwill garnered in 2004, and for what? (Bulgaria and Romania, due to join in 2007, with whom we have entered into no such commitments, are a separate issue).

Nothing in the latest medium-term review of the ESRI, which was never a right-wing think-tank, supports such a reversal. Under its high growth scenario, it states that “the additional growth which is made possible by the immigration of skilled labour will enhance the living standards of the population as a whole”.

More generally, it states that the “open labour market gave Ireland a unique advantage and facilitated the rapid convergence to EU living standards witnessed in recent years”. An EU Commission report next week will also present a favourable verdict on our more courageous policy.

Immigration policy in every country is sensitive. That does not mean it should not be discussed. It is very carefully discussed in the latest NESC report. Anything that would encourage or make prejudice more respectable is dangerous. Measures deeply injurious to national welfare should not be canvassed, simply because they strike a popular chord and play up public fears. We have fortunately so far in this country been spared the politics of right-wing xenophobia. The introduction of themes that might nourish it is most unwelcome.

If the Government and the social partners want to do more for the least advantaged section of our indigenous workforce, they can reintroduce flexibility to the community employment schemes as part of the social partnership negotiations.

The insidious suggestion that work permits should be reconsidered for migrants from new EU member states with the crude reminder that there are 40 million Poles was not a glorious moment in the history of the Irish labour movement, and has little in keeping with the spirit of 1913 or James Connolly, who expressed a particular empathy for Poland. Is a mini-fortress Ireland to displace internationalism as the new dominant ideal? The proposal, which is not being pursued by the trade unions, should be binned.”