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Lessons from Gama

Colin Jones

1st June 2005

The decision of the Turkish workers employed by Gama to accept the Labour Court recommendations regarding a settlement of their strike and the company’s agreement to do likewise would appear to bring an end to a dispute that has shone a light on the appalling exploitation that lies at the foundations of the Irish economic success story.

The workers’ exploitation was first brought to light in admittedly accidental circumstances by the Socialist Party, whose TD Joe Higgins made it a national issue. This in itself is significant. Significant because the workers suffering the exploitation were already union members and questions over their situation had already been raised. Union leaders accepted government assurances that there was nothing wrong and the issue might have rested there had the workers not been prepared to protest and Joe Higgins not been able to champion their cause.

The labelling of the workers as ‘kebabs’ by a junior government minister responsible for foreign affairs and his ability to shrug off criticism with a non-apology has exposed crudely the racism at the heart of government and society. That we cannot also label the trade unions in similar terms is only because there is no evidence that they are not perfectly happy to let native workers endure the same exploitation.

It is therefore not good enough for Joe Higgins to issue a statement saying that ‘the trade union movement must now move immediately to a major organisation of all migrant workers.’ The workers already were union members. Joe has pursued a strategy of embarrassing the SIPTU bureaucrats into taking minimum action on the issue and this has now resulted in a settlement that does nothing to ensure similar exploitation does not continue.

Plainly the answer to migrant workers’ exploitation does not lie in becoming members of SIPTU.

The question is not whether Joe Higgins and the Socialist Party were in a position to pursue any other strategy than reliance on this rotten union bureaucracy but, now that the issue has been resolved, whether they and other socialists have learnt that a new one is needed. Unless we are to believe that Gama is the only employer that pays exploitation wages while also paying what amounts to protection money we have a real problem.

The answer does not only lie in breaking from a policy of social partnership in which the identity of interests of the bosses, government and workers is asserted and where therefore the demands of the first two become the burden of the last.  The answer lies in also recognising that while this policy might involve a false statement of an identity of interest a real coincidence of interest does exist – the interests of the bosses, government, and union bureaucracy.

What this means is that social partnership is not a mistaken policy but the right policy for the trade union bureaucracy. The answer therefore lies not in new leaders of this bureaucracy, i.e. new leaders of the present trade unions – new bureaucrats. It means new organisations – democratic and fighting ones. The latter do not suddenly exist if left bureaucrats are elected in replacement of the existing right ones. While the fight for such organisations will undoubtedly go through existing trade unions, socialists must lose their predisposition for narrowing their perspectives to this alone. Above all they must break from seeking a purely trade union response to what are political problems, or rather separating the two.

The process of bureaucratisation of the workers’ own organisations is a global phenomenon and there is as yet no shining example of the creation of the new means of organisation that we want. We thus face an extremely difficult problem whose novelty rules out a simple reliance on past strategies and tactics. Acknowledging this would be a start.

In the Gama dispute the company clearly broke the law yet in effect the workers have been given relatively miserly pay outs so that they could more or less get lost. They will get €8,000 per year of service plus one of €2,000 when they finish their contract in Ireland, meaning the average pay out per worker will be around €17,000. SIPTU Industrial Secretary Noel Dowling said “Although our members have benefited from the recommendation it still sees Gama getting away with a considerable amount of earnings that those workers earned. Nevertheless we welcome it because the workers want to finalise their affairs here, get their money and go back to Turkey.” A clearer admission of the bureaucracy’s impotence could hardly be asked for.


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