In addition to low pay, the workers, who are mostly from the newer EU member states, are forced to endure the most oppressive conditions. On the two Irish Ferries ships operating the Ireland/Britain routes workers do twelve-hour shifts, seven days a week. Any spare time they have is spent on the alternative vessel to the one they are employed on. They are actively discouraged from leaving the ships; any workers who do come ashore can be disciplined or even sacked. Also, the workers are no longer directly employed by Irish Ferries but supplied by an agency located in Cypress!
Despite these hardships they are still relatively well off compared with workers on the French routes. They are at least still receiving the Irish minimum wage of €8.65 an hour. However, come December they will no longer be entitled to this, and are expected to be put onto the lower rate.
The situation this group of workers find themselves in is iniquitous. But it is a situation that Irish trade unions have a great deal of responsibility in bringing about. For it follows directly from the deal that ICTU brokered with Irish Ferries in 2006 which saw more than 500 made redundant as part of an outsourcing and cost reduction exercise. At the time ICTU brought over 100,000 people out onto the streets of towns and cities across the country to protest at the blatant injustice of what Irish Ferries were attempting to do. One of the main slogans of these demonstrations was "no slave ships in Irish waters".
However, almost immediately after this impressible mobilisation, the trade unions made an agreement that gave Irish Ferries all they wanted. Their ships were re-registered in a foreign country and the any rights that the workers may have enjoyed under Irish law were removed. The only consolation was the workers on the Ireland/Britain routes would receive the Irish minimum wage for a two-year period. This agreement is due to run out at the end of 2008.
Unbelievably, some groups on the left hailed this as a victory. They fell in behind the bureaucrats because they were seen to be mobilising workers. However, the purpose of the mobilisation was not to fight back, but to demonstrate the ability of the leadership to marshal the working class and to show the Government and employers the benefits of keeping social partnership in place. If the union leaders could show their worth in facilitating the ongoing neo-liberal offensive they could keep their place at the table. So following hard on the hard on the heals of the Irish Ferries deal we had the ten year partnership agreement. Meanwhile, workers both indigenous and immigrant, both onshore and off shore, continue to suffer.
Ironically, the new vessel in the Irish Ferries fleet has been named the Oscar Wilde; another ship is called the Jonathan Swift. These two great Irish writers, much of whose energies were taken up in denouncing abuses of their day, would have no doubt found the conditions that prevail within the vessels that bear their names a subject worthy of their attention. If only today’s left possessed a fraction of their insight.