Irish Ferries dispute roundup

The Irish Ferries dispute is over but the threat of summary sackings and casualisation remains.

Dozens of workers occupied two ferries for more than three weeks in appalling conditions, locking themselves in engine and control rooms below the water line, with little food and the lights on twenty-four hours a day. The MVs Isle of Inishmore and Ulysses were occupied when they docked in Wales and it became apparent that their employer, Irish Ferries, had secretly imported replacement crews from the Baltic states to replace 540 unionised seafarers with agency workers on 3.60 Euros (about £2.80) an hour. The crews were offered immediate dismissal, `voluntary' redundancy worth half their entitlement or re-employment at 3.60 Euros (the Irish minimum wage is 7.65 Euros). Some choice!

The scab crew came aboard incognito with security guards who then changed into uniforms and riot gear, ready to summarily sack and expel the Irish crew from the ships. The company says that the security presence was "necessary" to ensure access by safety and maintenance personnel while at the same time illegally denying the trade unions access to their members; another example of how private property allows bosses to ignore the law when it suits them. "We have a duty and responsibility to protect our assets", said a company spokesman – quite. The Irish courts ruled after the 2004 dispute that terms and conditions previously agreed should stay in place until 2007. How do you get round this inconvenient little problem? Sack the workers and replace them with new ones employed on a different basis. Some courts, some justice…

Widespread support

The dispute has attracted widespread support. The MV Normandy had to dock in Dublin after being `locked out' by workers at Rosslare. A crew of eastern European workers, ready to be put aboard had to be driven away in taxis after the SIPTU union said it would not work with the company if it persisted in trying to put scab crews onto Irish ships. An unofficial lockout of Irish Ferries ships across Ireland soon developed and all sailings cancelled. A demonstration at Holyhead on December 6th in support of the crew occupying the MV

Ulysses drew 60+ demonstrators of whom 25 came from Liverpool. Not many you might think but more than made up for by 100,000 who attended rallies in Dublin and other cities on December 9th to demand government action to combat exploitation of migrant workers and the displacement of jobs. However SIPTU leaders could not and would not go beyond these half day actions rather than calling for all- out solidarity strikes.

The company has a long history of acrid labour relations and on at least one occasion previously had allegedly threatened to use tear gas on strikers. In this dispute they have – because the law allows them to – threatened to withdraw redundancy offers by going into (temporary) liquidation, no doubt emerging later under a Cypriot flag and registered office in Belize. Crew member Gary Jones on the Isle of Inishmore, said: "We've given a lot of things away to Irish

Ferries over the last two years. They've made savings of £3.5m by taking away conditions from us. We've only our jobs left and that's what we're trying to secure." Although Irish Ferries says cost- cutting is necessary, its local competitor, Stena Lines, says it has no similar plans and will continue to use local crews.

On December 14th the three week dispute at Irish Ferries came to an end. SIPTU claimed that the deal protects a "threshold of decency". The deal means a two-tier workforce with those staff who reject redundancy keeping their old wages and conditions but all new staff being paid just 7.65 Euros an hour and having longer working hours and fewer holidays. Irish Ferries can re-flag its ships; a three year no-strike agreement and all disputes to be settled by binding arbitration. However the Latvian workers have seen their pay doubled; they also have gained a month's paid leave for every two months they work, originally the company wanted one months leave for every three months worked.

Everyone close to the dispute recognizes that the replacement crews were duped by the company and are as much victims of Irish Ferries duplicity as anyone. People all over the world should be able to have a decent living.

Globalization and the spread of rampant free-market capitalism is not a far-away problem of peasants driven from their land or bulldozed shantytowns but here and now.

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