Low paid suffer quietly in debate on immigrants

From the Irish Independent

Executive Summary:
Ireland's ruling class are screwing the rest of us and destroying Ireland as a nation. The writer does not say that the rulers are communist subversives, followers of Antonio Gramsci or his Useful Idiots. NB Traveller is the Irish euphemism for gypsy. They are keen on feuding.

Immigration is making it hard for Irish workers to get jobs. If you speak to Irish people on any dole queue in this country they will tell you that immigrants have taken huge numbers of lesser skilled jobs and have forced wages so low that it has become unaffordable for an Irish worker to give up welfare for work. I believe what the Irish are telling me, but is anyone listening? Just this week, we have had yet another report from the Equality Authority about what they call discrimination against immigrants in the job market. The report is long on the complaints of immigrants, perceived or otherwise, but the complaints of Irish people about immigration figure only in the report's recommendations about measures to "combat racism". So why do the views and experiences of poorer Irish people count for so little in the immigration debate?

Immigration has had nearly no effect on the earning capacity and job prospects of middle-class professional people in Ireland. To quote the Equality Authority this week: "Migrants to Ireland fare less well than Irish nationals in terms of ... access to privileged occupations". Quite so. But the impact of immigration on less privileged occupations has been enormous. The evidence of my senses supports what the people on the dole queues are telling me. I happen to work in RTE. At Montrose, immigrants have made very little effect on the privileged occupations there but they have all but totally replaced the Irish workers in the canteen. Among the canteen staff, the working class Dublin accents of 10 years ago are now nearly all gone. There's nothing unusual about Montrose. The same pattern of immigration in the workplace can be seen all over Ireland.

But the Equality Authority can't see the uneven impact of immigration on the Irish workforce. It is blind to social class. Look at how they tick the boxes for their survey this week. White Irish workers come in only two varieties: Traveller and non-Traveller. No other distinction is recognised. But that's not how it feels for people on the dole. I recently interviewed a woman at Bishop Street dole office in Dublin. She was single, early 40s and had worked for over 20 years in a biscuit factory and was now jobless.

She was clutching her letters from employers to prove she had been looking for work. She had been offered a supermarket job but couldn't afford to take it because of the effect it would have on her rent. For that woman, it was no comfort to her that white non-Travellers such as herself were better represented than immigrants in what the Equality Authority calls privileged occupations. But for the EA, she's in the same box as the highest earners in Ireland.

So why do immigrants do so well in competition with the Irish in lesser-skilled jobs? Immigrants have a lot of advantages over natives.

First, they are usually young. When you are young and tough you don't mind roughing it for a few years. We Irish did it in London and New York in the Eighties when there was nothing for us at home. People of my age roughed it in over-priced bedsits in Rathmines in the Seventies and we didn't care too much because we knew it wasn't going to last. As the EA report states, immigrants are willing to settle for less good pay and living conditions than Irish because they regard their status as a "stopgap" before going back to their home countries. The young Poles are happy to rough it just as we were when we were young emigrants.

A second advantage immigrants have is that they are mobile. When the Glanbia food-processing plant burned down in Edenderry last year and operations were transferred to Nenagh, that was a lot worse news for the one third of the workforce that was Irish than it was for the immigrants. The Irishmen had mortgages and children at school, making it hard to move. For the immigrants, if you had come all the way from East Europe to send money home to your family then whether you lived in Offaly or Tipperary didn't matter.

Thirdly, immigrants can afford to work for less than natives because their money stretches a lot further back home than it does here. Poles are often building a house for themselves back home. Housing costs a lot less in Poland than it does here. Only somebody blinded by equality ideology will say that the Irish worker is equally free to go and build a house for himself in Poland if he wants to. Likewise, children's allowance money for foreigners working here stretches a lot further for their kids back home than it does for kids in Ireland.

Fourth, immigrants aren't burdened by their background. Irish people from city suburbs with a bad name routinely give an aunt's address somewhere else when applying for a job. But a lower-class Irish person can still be spotted by his accent and style of speech, his appearance, his social and cultural attitudes even. In the western world, Apartheid isn't black and white but is, instead, based on myriad tell-tale signs that can be perceived by a fellow-countryman. An immigrant can leave his past behind him. I don't know what a bad address is in Warsaw, nor would I know a lower-class Polish accent. An immigrant is freed from his background when he leaves home. A native is stuck with his.

A fifth advantage the foreigner has over the native is that he is less likely to be unionised and he is, therefore, more attractive to employers. The nurses' strike last year showed up the nationality faultline in the nursing profession in this country. As Irish nurses told anyone who would listen, the foreigners would settle for a lot less money than the Irish would. African and Asian families hadn't endured hardship to get their daughters into nursing just so they could walk up and down with pickets. The defeat of the nurses came about because the Government rightly judged that the foreigners wouldn't support their union.

So does the Irish worker have any advantage over the native? In lower-skilled jobs, I would say not much. It's only where communication skills are involved that the Irish might have the edge. But it is illegal for an employer to advertise for an Irish barman or an Irish hotel receptionist.

"Have you got what it takes to give a great Irish welcome?" was how one tourist attraction recently advertised for staff.

The advantages that the immigrant has over the Irishman aren't legislated for but the one natural advantage of the native has been made illegal for the Irishman to use.

Irish people, in my opinion, are not racist. The opinion poll showing that most of us are worried by immigration but are not against immigrants may seem paradoxical but I think it can be explained. The nurses I mentioned above, while bitterly resentful of the economic and political effect of immigrant labour on their profession, at the same time have made many warm friendships with the foreigners. Immigrants tell the same story.

I have been interviewing them for years now and they persistently tell me that they find Irish people to be friendly and fair in their dealings with them. The disappointment of racism researchers is almost palpable that immigrants aren't telling them what they want to hear.

We need to start listening to what Irish people are saying about immigration. Of course, immigration has been good for the economy and has been very good for Irish high earners who are in secure jobs. The low costs that go with low wages have been good for everyone. But for Irish people who have to compete for those low-wage jobs, immigration is obviously a double-edged sword.

 

Errors & omissions, broken links, cock ups, over-emphasis, malice [ real or imaginary ] or whatever; if you find any I am open to comment.


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Updated on 29/09/2012 14:58