Racist pay, racist deportations. Mass opposition is still possible!
15 April 2005
Issues of race and immigration, seemingly resolved by the right-wing victory in the constitutional amendment vote of June 2004, have returned to haunt the Irish establishment. Rather than being resolved, it is clear the question still poses difficulties and will continue to do so for some time to come.
The government interpreted the referendum result as giving the green light to adopt a callous and draconian method of forcing people out of the country. This had led to local protests, indicating that a mass opposition to racism is still possible, but indicating also the limited and contradictory understanding held by the mass of the population and the long road that has yet to be travelled to beat back the racist threat facing the Irish working class.
A major furore involved Olunkunle Eluhanla, seized at his school by immigration officials as he was preparing to sit his final exams and forced on to a plane for Nigeria, still dressed in his school uniform. His schoolmates quickly targeted Michael McDowell, the minister concerned, who put forward as part of his initial response to criticism the fact that these strong-arm measures were farmed out to minor functionaries without anyone bothering to take into account the circumstances of the victim. Public demonstrations by school pupils were accompanied by strong protests from teaching unions. The minister backed down and allowed Olunkunle to return.
A major victory for anti-racism? Only to a limited extent. The mechanism at work was the old Irish clientelist method of targeting a TD or minister to win immediate and local demands. During the same grab operation parents were separated from their children and a number of children of primary school age were deported. In at least one case the child was removed from class at a primary school by immigration officials for immediate deportation. Teacher union protests focused on the school as sanctuary – a useful point, but well short of general opposition to racist deportation.
Earlier Garda had raided a Kildare school looking for a Nigerian girl. Her mother and a friend were deported the same day. Elizabeth Odunsi and Iyabo Nwanzewere were among 35 people deported to Nigeria on 14 March. Ironically the two women had posed with Bertie Ahern to demonstrate how friendly and welcoming Ireland was! The deportation involved some children being removed with their mothers but others were left behind, in hiding in the midlands in an attempt to avoid deportation. As a response over 5,000 people in the town signed a petition protesting against the deportations.
The Kildare campaign is again local. It demonstrates the power of spontaneous solidarity when the people involved are local but ignores the face that these attacks are occurring all across the country. The demand raised is for the return of people they know and like, rather than blanket opposition to the deportation offensive in total.
The case of Salvacion Orge is of great significance in understanding the mechanisms behind state racism. Salvacion was employed on an Irish Ferries vessel at a rate of €1 per hour. Enquiries by the media led to the rapid dissolution of the front company and the immediate sacking of the Philippine workers. Two were quickly deported without any pay, but when Salvacion launched her own protest by refusing to leave the ship, and demanded trade union support, SIPTU stepped in and won a cash award which also seemed to involve the immediate return of Salvacion to the Philippines. The significant fact was that Salvacion was being paid €1 per hour. Is there to be an investigation into how this came to be? Is anyone to be tried and prosecuted? Is there any guarantee that wages of €1 will not be paid in the future?
In fact the wage rate for maritime workers turns out to be a little over €2 per hour, a rate routinely paid without any protest or comment. The demonstrations of the GAMA workers complaining that Turkish workers were being underpaid in the construction industry indicates, unsurprisingly, that low wages are a common theme for migrant workers. In this case the company claimed that their wages were resting in Dutch bank accounts – except that the workers knew nothing about these accounts!
The minister responsible for this state of affairs, Mary Harney, had replied to earlier complaints about the company by saying there was nothing wrong. In fact she had made special efforts to bring the company into the State. It turns out that only twenty labour inspectors are available in the 26 counties to police the terms and conditions of workers and even after the government announcement that the number will be increased there will still be fewer wage inspectors than inspectors overseeing the welfare of dogs!
Isn’t it the case that underpayment has been a feature of the construction industry over many years? That many knew about Gama’s practices but did nothing, including the unions? Isn’t it the case that the trade union leadership has been in partnership with government and the bosses for over a decade while this has been going on? A strange partnership that is unable to guarantee anything as fundamental as a minimum wage. Isn’t it the case that SIPTU has groups of Brazilian butchers enrolled as members along the West coast and that they are paid at lower rates than their Irish counterparts? Isn’t it the case that the trade union movement has cooperated with a system where employment licences are held by the employer – a guarantee that migrant workers will be virtual slaves, open targets for super-exploitation and robbery of their wages? Employment minister Micheál Martin has now said that he will consider changing the system, but doesn’t want to act hastily in case workers are exploited!
The essential political issue in these cases, and the essential interest of Irish workers, is that scape-goating migrants acts as a smokescreen for a system unable and unwilling to provide the basic necessities of life and basic rights to ordinary workers. The oppression of migrant workers cannot take place without extending the right and ability of the state to terrorise the working class in general. When a rate of one euro an hour is paid it automatically becomes the bottom rung of the pay ladder, a goal towards which employers can then direct their fire. On the other hand when this is resisted all workers gain, as the increase in labour inspectors shows. However inadequate the increase the additional inspectors will also be able to provide some protection to native workers.
When working people first respond to oppression
it is hardly surprising that they react in a sectional and local way, to
attacks on those closest – their neighbours, friends and work colleagues.
By engaging in these struggles they have the opportunity to find out in
greater detail about the issues and develop a more detailed understanding
of racism and whose interests it favours. This is precisely the task of
socialists – to build a broad state-wide campaign against racism, and one
that goes beyond an anaemic liberalism that is quite prepared to see individual
cases treated sympathetically as long as racism divides generally. These
were not exceptional cases except that there was a challenge to them. Each
time they occur we must demand a change to the rules.