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.”

  • D’Oracle


    There’s a real irony in suggesting poor old Rabbitte is out of step in Europe on admitting accession state workers when Ireland is only one of three states which has actually allowed them access to the their national labour market. !

    Long before others have allowed in as many in pro rata as Ireland already has, the local proto -fascists will have come to power in many of our EU partner countries.

    Theres been a fair bit of elite ganging up on Rabbo this past week on this issue ; some of the critics themselves benefit from the present situation of limitless cheaper to employ emigrant workers -so -in the immortal words of Mandy Rice Davies ……

    Rabbo doesnt seem to have been advocating anything extreme such as actually stopping the inflow ; best just to see it as a bit of bog-standard two -way political betting. Organized labour is getting a bit restless on this front,he does need their votes, theres an election out their in the fog and so he would say that, wouldnt he

  • Henry94

    Pat Rabbitte was for most of his political life a member of the pro-Soviet Workers Party which supported the oppression of Polish workers by their Russian masters. The Workers Party, where they had influence, opposed and obstructed all attempts to pass motions in support of free Trade Unions in Poland.

    Now he wants to keep them in their place again. What has Poland done to deserve Pat Rabbitte.


    Labour / Workers Party under Rabbite’s leadership will say whatever it must over the next 18 months to try to connect with voters – he knows that this is his last throw of the dice.

    In this statement he is trying to find some lowest common denominator and has failed. As he will in his bid to be Tanaiste.

  • Holt

    Full marks to Rabbitte for raising the issue. Criticism of Rabbitte comes from the beneficiaries of cheap labour (remember Gama and Irish Ferries). Interestingly I haven’t heard a whisper from SF on this issue.

  • Xabi Alonso

    I believe the BBC’s Politics Show yesterday highlighted that precisely the same issues Pat Rabbitte has been talking about in Ireland are happening in the North of England. That is, the influx of cheap migrant labour from Eastern Europe in Britain is driving down employment standards and wages, and causing displacement.


    Xabi Alonso, you said: “the same issues Pat Rabbitte has been talking about in Ireland are happening in the North of England. That is, the influx of cheap migrant labour from Eastern Europe in Britain is driving down employment standards and wages, and causing displacement.”

    There is no evidence that this is happening to any significant extent in ireland. None. On the contrary, the evidence shows that wage levels continue to rise across the board, albeit at a slower rate.

    As regards employment standards, what are you talking about? Employment standards in Ireland continue to be set by Europe and monitored by state and independent agencies.

    The argument you set out is indeed made in ‘the North of England’, but it is made by the skin headed tatooed thugs of the BNP who generate and thrive on inter community tension.

    That Pat Rabbitte chooses to bring the same pathetically low standard of analysis and debate into Ireland ahead of a general election is a sign of the trouble he is in.

  • fair_deal

    What has Poland done to deserve Pat Rabbitte?

    About the same as what Cuba has done to deserve Gerry Adams being pally with Castro

  • Mark

    If working conditions and wages are being driven down, it is by employers, not migrant workers. Perhaps the labour movement should be asking itself whether it could do more to prevent this happening rather than looking for scapegoats. How will the unions persuade immigrants that they need to be a members to protect their interests if leaders make these kind of comments? And how can the unions make a difference if a growing section of the workforce is alienated from them?

  • Xabi Alonso

    Northern FF: I will be generous and assume you were out of the country over the past few months and did not notice the Irish Ferries dispute or Gama scandal.

    As for making arguments similar to the BNP, I would say that members of FF such as Conor “kebabs” Lenihan and Mary “working like a black” O’Rourke would have more in common with them than the leader of the Labour Party.


    Xabi Alonso

    I haven’t been out of the country at all, thanks for asking. What I do choose to do however is base my position on the evidence that is available – i.e. that wages in Ireland are not ‘being driven down’ by immigration and that work conditions, as judged by European standards, continue to be monitored and enforced by state and independent authorities.

    You choosing to take out of context the Irish Ferries dispute (which has been settled to everyone’s satisfaction I think) and the Gama disgrace (which had nothing to do with the Eastern European workers you started talking about) fits perfectly well with the tactics of anti-immigration campaigners in the North of England. Take an isolated incident, emphasise the racial / immigrant element of it and point to it as an example of the tensions that are being caused / why we have to protect ‘our’ jobs. But as I’ve said before – Rabbitte will try anything to get some traction ahead of the next election.

    I’m also disappointed that you choose to liken Mary O’Rourke with the BNP – I think anyone who has worked against racism in the Republic will know that she has been a very effective advocate. Try to stay on the issue rather than inappropriate attacks on the individual.

    When you are trying to imagine who would identify closer with the objectives of the BNP, I’d ask you to consider the views of the immigrant community – is it those who have welcomed them into the country and recognise the role they play in the economy and society or those who want to stir up the issue and limit their numbers?

    On any objective analysis, Rabbitte is letting the immigrant community down. But who am I kidding? Rabbitte’s and Labour / WP’s interest in social justice extends only as far as the Unions, and if you’re not in the club you can go whistle…

  • George

    my problem with Rabbitte is that he has changed his tune following a survey that showed there was votes to be had in targeting immigrants.

    That makes him the lowest of the low in my view.

    Earlier last year, Labour was all for allowing all EU nationals to come to Ireland as migrants. Not a peep from them.

    It also supported the idea of 15,000 coming from outside the EU each year even if they didn’t have a job offer.

    He even stated that even if we could get all our workers from the EU we shouldn’t shut down immigration for work purposes from other countries.

    Now all of a sudden he wants to introduce work permits which would only be introduced if Labour came into power in mid 2007, would probably take at least a year to set up and put in place (late 2008) and would have to be totally dismantled by the end of 2010.

    Where is the economic, political or social logic in that?

    His 40 million Poles comment was designed to strike fear and doesn’t reflect any reality.

    This from a man who supposedly wanted open EU borders and 15,000 visas for non-EU citizens six months ago.

  • Adam Lawson

    I think you are the one that is out of step:

    France eyes a more selective immigration system

  • Adam Lawson
  • D’Oracle

    I agree he has changed tack but a lot of politicians do ; if it wasnt for the PD ideology police, FF would already have made the same noises. Once the PD saucer section separates from the good ship FF under cover of an election run-up, watch the FF’ers change tack – especially if construction sector slows meantime.

    I think Rabbitte and Co realised after Gama and Irish Ferries that they offered a serious hostage to fortune in their unqualified endorsement of open labour markets.

    The phased “manana “proposal holds the a two-way bet and builds-in the election window ; firm up if things go wrong or back off if the Tiger doesnt tire. Thats pro politics if a mite obvious.

    The strategic priority now to benefit all involved – Ireland , Irish real wages going forward , jobs closer to home for our polish friends and giving a dash of the PD medicine to get places like Germany on the way back is for the others of the old EU 15 to open up asap.

    Signs are EU Commission are about to press for just that.

    Lowest of the low ?Hardly -hes just doing a spot of politics