Tens of thousands of workers were expected to take to the streets around Ireland this week in solidarity with Irish Ferries workers. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) has called a national day of protest for Friday this week.
The action is in support of workers at Irish Ferries who are occupying two ships to prevent the company’s attempt to sack 543 staff and replace them with agency workers from Eastern Europe working 84 hours a week for £2.40 an hour.
The ferries, The Isle of Inishmore and The Ulysses, are being occupied by workers in Pembroke Dock and Holyhead in Wales. At the same time Irish Ferries’ other ships are stranded by solidarity action in Ireland.
The Irish government has pressured Irish Ferries management into negotiations with the unions in a desperate attempt to hold together talks over a national wage agreement.
Nevertheless the rallies on Friday look set to become by far Ireland’s largest trade union protest in decades. And on Monday of this week shore staff at Irish Ferries voted three to one in favour of industrial action to support their colleagues.
John Curry, one of the officers occupying The Isle of Inishmore, spoke to Socialist Worker. “This is not just about us and our jobs — it’s much wider than that,” he said.
“If this company is allowed to get rid of its workers in one fell swoop, then what’s going to stop other countries across Europe doing the same?”
“It’s a bit like living in a bank vault, or the control room in a power station. There’s lots of electronic equipment and monitoring screens — it’s the heart and brains of the ship.
“We have control over things like ventilation and propulsion. It would have been easy for us to make things uncomfortable on board by shutting off power and ventilation, but we haven’t gone down that avenue.
“When we first went in we were sat there wondering if they would try to break the door down. Irish Ferries is acting like a company out of the dark ages — it’s the Tolpuddle Martyrs school of industrial relations.”
Dermot Meagher, another officer on the ship, said that morale was high. “We are prepared to stay as long as it takes,” he said. “Some of our shop stewards are locked in the engine room. But they are in constant contact and are in good spirits. They have enough supplies to last them a long time.
“We have no objection to any nationality working here — but they must be paid properly and given proper conditions. All the solidarity we can get is crucial.”
The Irish Continental Group owns Irish Ferries. Its board of directors is made up of captains of Irish industry. The company has regularly benefited from special tax breaks—Irish Ferries does not pay national insurance for its staff.
When Irish Ferries made their Irish crew on their ship The Normandy redundant and replaced them with agency staff, they received 1.3 million euros in redundancy support payments from the Irish government.
The confrontation at Irish Ferries began when the owners reflagged their ship. “Flags of convenience” are used when employers want to evade minimum wage or safety legislation — and reflagging is one the main weapons they use against seafarers all over the world.
Irish Ferries used its reflagging to claim it was no longer answerable to Irish legislation on the minimum wage. About 15 percent of the world’s fishing fleet are flying flags of convenience. And despite hypocritical talk about a “social Europe”, half of all European ships use flags of convenience.
The dispute at Irish Ferries is a warning for workers every where over what will happen if the proposed EU Bolkestein directive is implemented.
The aim of the directive is to enable services to move across national borders within the EU just as easily as within a single member state.
A “country of origin” principle mean that multinationals flying a flag of convenience can set up in whichever country has the worst safety regulations and least labour protection.
Solidarity from Welsh TUC
Around 40 members of several trade unions protested in Pembroke Dock in support of workers on board the Irish Ferries ship The Isle of Inishmore last Saturday.
As people gathered at the Welsh TUC backed protest, officers occupying the ship emerged on deck and unveiled a banner with an SOS message.
Nori McVicker, the Irish Sea coordinator of the International Transport Workers Federation (ITWF) said, “We must put pressure on the bosses to stop this practice of using Eastern European cheap labour to lower the pay, conditions and trade union rights of workers.
“It doesn’t matter where in the world workers come from, they deserve a decent wage and trade union representation. If this is not resolved through negotiation, the British trade union movement will join with the international trade union movement in solidarity.”
Bill Anderson, a ships inspector and ITWF spokesperson, handed a protest letter to dock authorities. “I’ve been here for two weeks and disgracefully not been allowed access to the crew,” he said.
A rally to support the crew occupying The Ulysses in Holyhead will take place on Wednesday of this week.