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Gama - minister reveals the racism at the heart of the Irish Government

Joe Craig

20th May 2005

The remarks by Conor Lenihan, the junior minister in the Department of Foreign Affairs, in a debate in the Dail that Socialist Party TD Joe Higgins should ‘stick with the kebabs’, a reference to his championing of the rights of Turkish construction workers, has been treated as not much more than a slip of the tongue. Even Joe Higgins did not go as far as to label the remark racist – although if it wasn’t racist, why did he point out that it was a clear reference to the Gama workers? He said he was ‘more interested in action rather than words.’

This is certainly needed, especially since the apology offered by Lenihan was of the usual, so heavily qualified as to be meaningless, character of apologising only ‘if any offence was taken’ because of any interpretation that may be put on those remarks.’

Joe Higgins clearly means that the government should take steps to ensure that the workers get their jobs back and receive the overtime they are due but which the company has refused to pay and for which the workers are now in their seventh week of strike action. The workers have been paid less than €3  an hour and have often worked over 80 hours per week without payment for overtime. One Turkish worker recorded his hours since arriving in Ireland: ‘there were three weeks I worked up to 90 hours. We worked in every type of weather condition; there were no stops for rain. For the first one and a half months I worked every single day. There was no day off, not even Sundays.’

But even this does not get to the heart of the matter as far as the Government is concerned. The remarks by Lenihan are not an unfortunate slip of the tongue or even an unconscious expression of personal prejudice. They are a faithful reflection of Government policy. This policy is one of conscious super-exploitation of migrant labour of which the Gama case is only the most prominent. Racism in words is therefore only the crude and offensive articulation of racist exploitation in practice.

Government Policy

The company has won a number of State construction contracts worth over €200 million and was picked out specifically for the job it has been doing. The Government has gone out of its way to ensure Gama was able to meet its contractual obligations with the State, after receiving a special invitation ‘by some members of the Irish government and civil servants’ when the latter were visiting the country in June 2000.

The company does not have to pay full PAYE or social insurance on hundreds of its workers and has benefited from exemptions under a special scheme to the extent that of 1,867 workers covered by this scheme since 2003, 1,324, or 70% have been employees of Gama! The Department of Social and Family Affairs has said ‘we have no explanation as to why Gama workers made up such a high proportion of exemption certificates.’ In relation to the fact that it does not have to pay income tax at the full level the Revenue Commissioners refused to disclose how much this was costing or whether it was after particular representations made to it.

The Government’s policies are specifically designed to facilitate such exploitation; work permits are held by the employer and workers lack the ability to move employer in response to extreme conditions. The system for policing the existing inadequate safeguards are proof of the government’s intent. It has employed more dog inspectors than labour inspectors and only three employers have been convicted of violating the Employment Permits Act of 2003 as of February this year.

Union policy

The action beyond mere words that concerns the Government and that should now be demanded is scrapping of all the measures that facilitate the exploitation of migrant labour. It should be demanded of the Government that State contracts only be awarded to companies that can demonstrate compliance with labour terms and conditions that would be acceptable to native workers.

However, when we consider who should ensure implementation of such safeguards, neither the State nor the trade unions can be relied upon to do so.

This is because the trade union SIPTU has already demonstrably failed to protect workers against the exploitation that is already against the law. In fact SIPTU has collaborated in the exploitation of the Gama workers by their taking perhaps a quarter of a million euros in dues from the workers and doing nothing for them. Given this role it is thus fitting that Eric Fleming from SIPTU could only call upon Lenihan to explain his remarks to the workers or resign if he does not. If Fleming was doing his job he would explain the remarks himself and what they signify. Only now has SIPTU announced that it is placing official pickets on the company’s two Dublin sites in support of 96 workers engaged in the strike action.

Around 200 workers have already returned to Turkey, some as a result of intimidation of their families at home, with the result that they will be unable to give evidence in pursuit of payment of the wages they are owed. The workers’ desperate conditions and militancy has pushed SIPTU into taking limited action, but the workers are clearly unhappy. The plight of one worker, Ahmet Korkuthan, graphically illustrates their situation. ‘My 15-year-old daughter has to have surgery for a brain tumour. It was supposed to take place 25 days ago, but I had it delayed because I hoped I would get some of the money I’m owed. I cannot delay any more. I do not trust Gama that they will give me anything. My daughter has to have the operation on May 26th. I cannot go yet because Gama has my passport, but as soon as the arrangements are made I am going home.’

Circumstances like these have led to the workers threatening that ‘the next stage is we are going on hunger strike.’ Such an eventuality would not just represent a condemnation of the exploitation of a multinational company or the racism of the Irish Government, it would stand as a ringing damnation of those organisations that are supposed to protect workers, in this case based in the pathetically named Liberty Hall.

The Gama case has been a brutal illustration of the fruits of social partnership. Our union leaders are partners with racists who, when they blurt out their vile views, are asked to explain their racism to the workers directly. It is long since past the time that socialists stopped treating these unions as the workers’ own organisations deserving of our unconditional loyalty and stopped giving the bureaucrats that lead them the compliment of not calling them scabs when we have the opportunity. When we cannot rely on trade unions to protect workers from the most outrageous exploitation we have no mechanism for ensuring that anything we demand of the State is actually implemented. Last week a group of left wing trade union activists met to discuss activity – the challenge, and future ones, stares them in the face. Solidarity with the Gama workers is only the most immediate task. As socialists we have a responsibility to provide a political alternative that ensures such episodes are not repeated in future. Opposition to social partnership and the bureaucrats who implement it is fundamental.



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