Economy Local Society

Migrant workers are key to economic growth of our region

One of the more striking data sets in the recent national census concerned Ballyhaunis. The town was shown to have one of the fastest growing populations in the Western region according to the 2022 census which shows the town’s population rose 14.3 percent –adding 438 people, to 3,495 – between 2016 and 2022. By contrast in the same time frame west Mayo towns like Eriff and Ballycastle lost 5.7 percent and 14.8 percent, respectively, of their populations. The population of Mayo rose 5.2 percent from 2016 to 2022.

One of the drivers of population in the East Mayo town is migration of migrant workers to staff the town’s multiple factories. Two large meat plants run on a majority-immigrant workforce. Foreign workers have become essential to keeping Mayo’s economy running but many are reconsidering the economics of working here due to low spending power.

Rising costs and unchanging wages are the key grievances of immigrant workers gathered at the Ballyhaunis Language Café, an informal self-help group run by locals. At a recent Thursdays night gathering several migrants spoke of the need to take on casual labouring work on the weekend to supplement factory line incomes. “I have been earning the same EUR380 to EUR400 per week for two years but now the landlord is charging EUR200 a week for the apartment I share with my wife,” explained one, a Ukrainian.

Rents in Mayo rose 14.1 percent year on year in the first quarter of 2022 compared to a rise nationally of 14.1 percent according to data from the Residential Tenancies Board (RTB). Cutting and pruning gardens for cash on a Saturday is how the Ukrainian ensures there’s enough to cover all the bills.

Another worker, from Latin America, relates a recent injury on the factory floor in Ballyhaunis which required him to visit Castlebar hospital. Not having a medical card, he paid for the care received, including an x-ray while the time he took off work resting a sprained wrist was unpaid.

“There is no paid sick leave at work, it’s not explained if there is any assistance,” he remarked.

The loss of income drove him to seek help from a local food bank and from St Vincent de Paul, he explained.

With many unskilled workers on minimum wage salaries have been eaten up by price inflation. The national consumer price index for September 2021 to September 2022 shows a 49.6 percent rise in the cost of electricity with a 9.9 percent jump in food and beverage costs and an 11.3 percent rise in transport. Rent rose by an average 10 percent in the time frame.

Straitened economic circumstances also reveal the challenges of integration faced by immigrants often unsure of their rights. With minimal English the aforementioned Latino relies on the pastor of a local evangelical church for assistance with paperwork and has had no direct engagement with Irish state agencies or unions due to language barriers.

In many respects it’s a case of local authorities and services struggling to keep up with the changing face of the workforce. A shortage of workers has sent employers in Mayo outside the EU for staff with staff from India, the Philippines, Thailand and Ukraine all working in agriculture and food processing businesses across Mayo. There were 40,000 employment permits issued last year in Ireland to non-EU nationals, nearly three times the number in 2021, explained Neil Bruton, head of campaigns at the Migrant Rights Centre of Ireland (MRCI).

Over the last year and a half, explained Bruton, due to serious shortages, the Government has opened up more categories to be eligible for employment permits like homecare, meat workers, health care assistants and bus drivers.

 “… Migrant workers are keeping sectors of our society and economy going. For example, by allowing older people to stay in their homes as carers, keeping agriculture mushrooms farms and meat factories going,” said Bruton.

While the influx of foreign workers has grown apace there are signs of inequality in the labour force.

Detailed recent research by the ESRI suggests major disparities between immigrants and individuals born in Ireland. In 2021 eighteen percent of Ireland’s population was foreign born. Even though the foreign-born workers were more likely to be in work –at 76 percent compared to 72 percent for locally born. Migrants were also more prone to poverty, according to the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) research compiled by Frances McGinnity, at 16.8 percent compared to 11.6 percent of the Irish born population.

Immigrant workers are far more dependent on private (and non-social housing) compared to the Irish born population, according to the ESRI data. Most alarming perhaps, the percentage of income spent on accommodation at 41 percent compared to an average of 8.5 percent for Irish nationals.

The challenges faced by immigrants haven’t gone unnoticed among local political representatives.

“Migrant workers are very vulnerable, they can’t find a place to stay and then they’re at the mercy of employers,” said Michael Kilcoyne, an independent member of Mayo County Council. “If you can’t get a decent wage you can’t pay your accommodation,” said Kilcoyne.

The relative absence of migrants from higher-paid public sector jobs and a reluctance or inability to join unions add to the discrepancies in pay between immigrant and Irish-born workers, according to Emily Quinn of the European Migration Network (EMN), which is located in the offices of the ESRI.

Increasingly prevalent in workplaces across Mayo, non-EU workers only get full access to the labour market after five years, tying them to employers who sponsor their initial visa. “This can lead to poor terms and conditions and exploitation,” said Neil Bruton. “They can only apply to bring their family after a year and even if they manage to get them here they cannot work”.

Some union figures see a link between pay discrepancies and exploitation. “Exploitation is a real and potential danger. Especially if the employer aims to exploit… rules on unfair dismissal and sick pay can be easily pushed aside by those who want to. Migrants are too often too scared to make a case,” said Memet Uludag, a shop steward at Unite who’s been trying to increase migrant membership among immigrants in Mayo.

Even in small towns in Mayo language barriers between different nationalities in a multi-ethnic workplace has made the task of unions in organising more difficult, explained Barnaba Dorda, an official with SIPTU, the country’s largest union in membership terms. Likewise, he adds, a language barrier and a related “lack of understanding of the Irish industrial relations code” makes workers vulnerable to exploitation.

The ESRI has recommended English language supports and recognition of foreign qualification certificates as practical ways to improve integration of immigrant workers.

Similar recommendations are made by local labour unions. Barnaba Durda, the SIPTU official believes proper recognition of qualifications would allow skilled workers -many of whom are in unskilled jobs here – to increase their wages. He also wants a government campaign to raise public awareness of the gap. Likewise, he wants to see mandatory disclosure of the migrant wage gap as well as the anticipated National Action Plan Against Racism.

“Government has been slow in responding to rapid and continuous net migration and in failing to eliminate the migrant wage gap,” said Durda. “Government has been more focused on the quantity rather than the quality of jobs, there haven’t been measures to incentivise employers to encourage union membership.”

Supports paid to businesses during the pandemic could have been made contingent on actions to improve the lot of workers, he suggested. SIPTU has been pushing for mandatory sick pay, something revealed as very necessary during the pandemic when migrant workers were staffing meat and food processing facilities.

Another union official sees immigrants and unions both as casualties of the changing nature of work.

“The outsourcing by major employers of tasks like cleaning has diminished unions you would think for instance that a cleaner working in a local hospital would be unionised but the HSE engages private cleaning companies,” said Memet Uludag, the shop steward at Unite.

Uludag sees other potential reasons for the absence of immigrants from unions. In many industries the move to temporary working visas doesn’t encourage union membership. Immigrant workers don’t want to do anything that might effect their immigration status.”

Both Uludag and local councillor Michael Kilcoyne believe the state agencies tasked with protecting workers’ rights are under resourced. The Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) runs a hotline for workers’ complaints and offers detailed guides on employment rights in multiple languages. But there are far too few inspectors to enforce the law, said Kilcoyne. “We are great in Ireland at making laws, but then forget they have to be enforced.”

The WDC lacks resources, said Uludag.

“I’m not sure it’s a political priority,” he remarks. “Recent governments have tended to emphasise the priorities of the multinationals over workers.”

Everyone interviewed for this article however welcomed the Employment Permits Bill 2022 currently going through the houses of the Oireachtas. The new bill will give non-EU immigrant workers the option to transfer their employment Permit to a new employer – providing migrants with an easier means of moving employer whether they find more favourable employment or are working in difficult circumstances.

The Employment Permits Bill will also require “additional conditions to improve the experience of permit holders, e.g., training or accommodation support for migrant workers in certain circumstances,” according to a statement from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment for this article. It will also legislate for “automatic indexation of salary thresholds establishing a model to ensure employment permit thresholds are in line with labour market increases,”

Neil Bruton believes this legislation could protect workers from exploitation “and allow them to stand up for their rights through making the change of employer a realistic option for all workers.”

Looking to the demographic and economic future of Mayo and neighbouring counties it’s not unreasonable to conclude western counties like Mayo will remain dependent on inward immigration to sustain population growth. After all in the period from 2016 to 2022 six of the eight lowest increases in natural population growth were recorded in western counties, meaning migration rather than births is driving population growth.

Mayo will go from 130,507 people in 2022 to 137,231 inhabitants in 2037, faster than projected in central government plans, according to projections compiled by the Western Development Commission (WDC).

Those figures will of course be dictated by the ability of local towns like Ballyhaunis to continue to attract workers to fill local jobs. While a vital supply of immigrant labour may keep local industries going and keep costs in check for business but may not solve structural economic issues besetting the region, according to Luke McGrath, an economist at the WDC, which is headquartered in Ballaghadreen. His research shows the western region lags the EU average on innovation and infrastructure metrics, helping explain problems retaining graduates in the region.

There’s been a 17 percent increase in employment in the West from 2016 to 2022, according to the WDC but the region – which has the same unemployment rate as the national level – remains dependent on public service jobs and on smaller, domestic firms rather than the multinationals driving job growth in other regions.

The region needs more investment in infrastructure to entice high-tech employment -and high paid jobs – to Mayo and neighbouring counties, according to the Western Development Commission. Aside from transport infrastructure the roll out of the National Broadband Plan across the region is a priority for the WDC.

Article appeared on Western People on May 14, 2023 here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *