Turkish Builders Strike in Ireland
An Injury to one is an injury to all
Ireland is seeing a militant struggle by migrant workers fighting for the same pay and conditions as Irish workers. 900 Turkish workers and 300 Irish workers are employed by Gama. Under the Registered Employment Agreement for the Construction industry no worker can legally be paid less than 12.96 euros per hour. However Gama paid its Turkish workers as little 2.20 per hour.
The picture shows a Turkish worker carrying an Irish union banner on the Dublin Mayday march with the image of Jim Larkin on it. Larkin had been a migrant worker and IWW organiser in the USA in between being one of the main organisers of the early and militant general workers unions in Ireland.
On Mayday, Dublin witnessed the unlikely sight of building workers dancing in the street. Unfortunately these workers from the Gama construction company weren’t dancing for joy but were protesting against the theft of their wages.
GAMA is Turkey’s largest construction firm, with a total staff of about 10,000 in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Russia, Germany and Ireland. It specialises in large public projects like roads and housing estates. It is also involved in building and part owning new power stations and has been operating in Ireland for the last five years. It sees its Irish operations as an important stepping-stone to the European and the US construction market.
Gamma wins government contracts by underbidding the competition. And how do they manage to keep costs down? By taking wages from their workers.
In Ireland, 900 Turkish workers and 300 Irish workers are employed by Gama. Under the Registered Employment Agreement for the Construction industry no worker can legally be paid less than 12.96 euros per hour. However Gama paid its Turkish workers as little 2.20 per hour.
Gama workers were given a small amount of money (around 250 euro) every month in Ireland, another small amount (around a 1000 euro) was transferred to bank accounts in Turkey. When they began working for Gama, Turkish workers were asked to sign two documents in English. None of the workers spoke english. The first form signed allowed Gama to transfer the remainder of the workers' money (around 3,000 euros) to bank accounts in Finansbank NV, based in Amsterdam. These bank accounts contained up to thirty million euros. None of the workers were aware these bank accounts existed.
The second document allowed the money to be transferred, the very next day, into a second bank account owned by an investment company called Ryder Investments NV. Outside Gama and Finansbank, and they aren’t telling, no-one seems to know who is behind Ryder Invesments NV, and what happened to the money.
Gama also managed to complete its projects ahead of schedule. How did they do this? By forcing their workers to work an average of 84 working hours. In Ireland, it is illegal to work more than 48 hours a week. Gama tried to cover up the extent of the abuse. The workers time sheets were sent to a head office in Dublin and shredded.
Gama workers slept, six to a room in bunk-beds and ate in dormitories on the building sites. They had to work for a year before being allowed to take any holidays. Since this was highlighted, the company has attempted to send 130 of the workers back to Turkey. It has tried to evict them from their lodgings. It has tried bribing the workers and has intimidated their families in Turkey.
Immigrants from non-EU countries, wanting to work in Ireland have to obtain a work-permit. This permit is held by the employer, which leaves migrant workers open to extreme exploitation. If they stand up for their rights, they can be threatened with deportation.
One of the most shocking aspects of the Gama story is that all these Turkish workers were signed up members of SIPTU, one of the countries largest unions. Although rumours of the mistreatment of these workers has circulated for a long time, it was not SIPTU which exposed the scandal. Rather a member of the Socialist Party (a small trotskyist organisation) borrowed a hard hat and one morning walked on site with a Turkish translator. Through talking to the builders he verified the truth of the situation. In Ireland we have a system of social partnership, in which the government, the trade unions and the employer centrally draw up agreements that govern work and pay conditions. In reality this has meant, that both employers and trade unions bend over backwards to please the bosses, and turn a blind eye to workers rights.
The GAMA workers, after much initial nervousness, went on strike. That really worried the firm's bosses. By the end of 2003 GAMA had 358 million euros worth of construction contracts in Ireland. That's 37.6% of its work, more than they have in Turkey itself. What happens here will have big effects everywhere GAMA has contracts.
The Turkish builders were put under huge pressure. The strikers can congratulate themselves for putting some manners on their bosses. Virtually all their wages that were hidden in Finansbank, Holland have now been transferred to their personal accounts. It is also a major achievement that GAMA is now committing itself to paying trade union rates of pay to all its workers.
There is still the issue of massive unpaid overtime and the situation of those GAMA employees known as fixed rate workers. These include surveyors and drivers. Their typical wage would be about 800 euros per month, but that involved working the same 80+hours a week as other workers.
GAMA has already been forced to pay money to the fixed rate workers equivalent to 42% of their previous wage. This is nowhere near enough, however, as it would mean only an extra 332 euros for a worker on the 800 euros a month rate. But it is an important gain, and it shows that big multinationals are not unbeatable when we all stand together. The importance of this victory, and the bravery of the Gama workers cannot be over emphasised. They have significantly improved working conditions not just for themselves but also for thousands and thousands of future Gama employees.
The Gama story shows us the reality of globalisation. Money can move freely between countries, workers can’t. This case and other similar cases show that many employers will happily break the law if it means greater profits for them. These are issues that affect all workers, Irish and non-Irish. The low wages paid to migrant workers under such conditions force down the wages paid to all. The only people who win are the employers, laughing all the way to the bank. The Irish government welcomed Gama with open arms and the leaders of the largest trade union turned a blind eye to the exploitation of their members partnership. Yet the GAMA workers also remind us that we are not powerless, that this globalisation can be challenged and that strikes are not "out-of-date" as so many media pundits proclaim. In reality solidarity is our strength and strikes can be our most effective weapon.
Written for Anarkismo.net
In reverse date order
GAMA workers at GPO in Dublin - site of 1916 uprising