Workers at Irish Ferries occupied two ships last week to prevent the company’s attempt to sack 550 staff and replace them with agency workers from Eastern Europe working an 84-hour week for £2.40 an hour.
The Isle of Inishmore and The Ulysses — the largest car ferry in the world — were stranded in Pembroke Dock and Holyhead in Wales.
Dock workers in Rosslare in Ireland refused to allow another Irish Ferries vessel, the MV Normandy, to dock. Workers in Dublin port eventually allowed the ship into port for humanitarian reasons and said they would not be letting the vessel set sail from Dublin again.
Crew member Gary Jones said, “We’ve given a lot of things away to Irish Ferries over the last two years. They’ve made savings of £3.5 million by taking away conditions from us. We’ve only our jobs left and that’s what we’re trying to secure.”
Officers and engineers took over the ships when Irish Ferries sent security staff on board in an effort to remove the crew and replace them with cheaper labourers from Latvia.
Some security men had boarded in Ireland as passengers, but had then changed into their uniforms in the toilets as the vessel approached Wales.
Chief officer Gerry Mooney said the security staff were found to be carrying weapons including iron bars and clubs in their bags.
He also said the fact that these people gained access to the bridge, the crew accommodation and other areas was a clear violation of international shipping security law. “This is highly illegal,” he said. “It borders on piracy.”
Marine engineer John Curry was barricaded in the engine room of the Isle of Inishmore. He said, “It is like a bank vault down here and we are not coming out until we get assurances from our trade union.
“I don’t trust my employers any more and I am 26 years working for this company. These security guys are big brutes.
“When we saw people on the monitor who appeared to be taking control of the ship we immediately secured our area.
“We really feel that this company could do anything to get us out of here. We are just lying down on the floor and the slightest sound has us awake and thinking that they are coming to get us.”
Irish Ferries has denied Irish newspaper reports that it considered the use of tear gas when another vessel was taken over by ship’s officers last December.
According to the Siptu union marine secretary Paul Smyth, “The new workers from Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania will be virtually locked up on board the vessels for three months.
“The company will do an average of eight sailings a day with a rapid turnaround time so these workers won’t get the time to stop off, whether in Dublin or anywhere else.
“Their working hours are 12 hours a day with no weekends, bank holidays, overtime or annual leave entitlement.
“Irish Ferries is providing us with a glimpse of the future labour market if neo-liberal zealots succeed in pushing through their services directive in Europe.”
Irish Ferries is using a loophole in Irish labour law to implement the spirit of the Bolkestein directive, which will be debated by the European Union (EU) parliament soon.
This will mean that the conditions of an employee will not be defined by where the employment is located but by where the employing company is registered.
Paul Smyth said, “The proposed directive will allow employers to transport workers from one end of the EU to the other and impose the ‘going rate’ in the member state with the poorest conditions applicable.
“The same blind market forces that are driving down pay and conditions in Irish Ferries are coming closer to everyone’s workplace.”
Irish unions called a national demonstration in Dublin for Friday this week.