Monday, January 23, 2006

Any chance of a start?

The recent calls for a change in regime for workers from the new EU entrants in Eastern Europe appears to have hit a chord with the public. According to a new survey published in today’s Irish Times, 78% of the public favours the introduction of a work permit system for such workers.

This follows the huge influx from Eastern Europe, particularly Poland with estimates of over 100,000 immigrants from that country. Our second largest immigrant community are the thousands of Chinese with visas to attend non-existent language schools. They’re now the back-bone of the office-cleaning industry and increasingly appear as shop-assistants etc..

The desire for restrictions on foreign workers was significantly higher among less well-off sections of the population than among the better-off. This could become a highly incendiary topic and it’s with concern I hear Ned O’Keeffe of Fianna Fail talking about the need to protect jobs for Irish people. If we’re not careful this could produce an anti-immigrant backlash with very ugly consequences.

The issue legitimately raised by Pat Rabbitte was whether (a) such immigrant workers were being exploited by Irish employers and paid less than the National Minimum Wage, or (b) used to displace existing Irish workers at lower that “the going rate” for certain types of work, although such reduced rates might still be above the National Minimum Wage.

Frankly, I fail to understand how a work permit system would address either of these situations, other than by the crude mechanism of slowing down the inflow of workers and thereby reducing, but not eliminating, the opportunity of employers to exploit the surplus labour available.

Surely for (a) above, the solution lies in a much more active use of inspectors to enforce the existing employment legislation and provision of information and feedback channels for immigrant workers to ensure they know, and can seek enforcement of, their rights. These situations typically arise in cases of unskilled, manual labour and often where the worker is here illegally in the first place, thus reducing their willingness to complain to the authorities.

For (b) above, the workers are usually semi-skilled or skilled e.g carpenters, plumbers, block-layers etc employed in areas such as the construction industry. It might well be that demand for labour in these areas has pushed costs to levels that will prove to be unsustainable in the medium to long term. Certainly, it has added substantially to the cost of house-building. Allowing these new market forces to determine wage rates might be beneficial to the overall economy, even if it means some pain for incumbent workers who have benefited from inflated pay rates in recent years.

Anecdotally, employers claim that many of these immigrant workers are more highly skilled and better motivated than their Irish counterparts. Consequently, employers can afford to pay them the same rates as the Irish workers but still enjoy better productivity.

The latter point is easy to believe. The building boom in Ireland in the past decade seems to have overstretched the available local skilled tradesmen. The standard of finish in many holiday homes, apartments and tax-break hotels can be literally painful to behold. Rough and badly planed timber will leave you with grazes, poorly fitted doors and units, uneven tiling, sloppy decor etc would make you wonder about the standard of work in areas you can’t see - wiring, plumbing, central heating systems etc etc..

On balance, the influx of immigrants has been very good for Ireland, and not just for economic reasons. To date, most of these visitors seem to have had a fairly positive experience in Ireland - though there will always be a minority of unscrupulous cowboys who exploit situations. It would be a shame if politicians and media create a negative perception of the impact of these immigrants on prospects for Irish workers and a backlash that sours realtions between the native and the immigrant communities.

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