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1 June 2006 Edition

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• This news feature is funded by the European United Left/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL)

Solidarity is the Key

BY ELANE HEFFERMAN

Jolanta is tired as usual. The accommodation agency called her last night. Tenants had left a house and it needed to be thoroughly cleaned for the new occupants who were due to move in. It was a big, three-bedroom house and so dirty, she tells me, that she got paid extra - £55 for the 10 hours of scrubbing, rubbish-clearing and dusting.

The pay used to be worse before Poland joined the EU and it became legal for her to work, but the job remains casual and it's a struggle to survive and support her husband, who is too ill to work.

It's certainly true that workers arriving from the new European states are being exploited and taking home poverty pay.

So far, 345,000 workers, more than half from Poland, have paid £50 to register under the new Labour Workers' Registration Scheme (WRS), without which it remains illegal to work here.

Trade unions, community groups and even the employers cited in the latest Home Office research supply many examples of wages below the legal minimum, of outrageous deductions from pay for transport to work or substandard accommodation. But the vast majority of these migrants are not employed in the kind of casual and marginal work that Jolanta does. _They are central to the government's neoliberal economic strategy and, according to finance analysts Ernst and Young, the lower wages paid to unskilled east European migrant workers is helping to keep interest rates low by curbing wage inflation.

A Department of Work and Pensions report showed that more than 80 per cent of workers got between £4.50 and £6 an hour, with 5 per cent on less than £4.50. But the migrants are not, as Migration Watch claims, taking the jobs that would otherwise go to British-born workers. The Home Office research, as well as the DWP report, show that most of the jobs taken by those registered on the WRS would otherwise remain vacant due to working conditions and low wages or be filled by migrants on other temporary work schemes. Neither are they responsible for low wages. The drive to hold down wages comes from the large firms for whom the majority of migrants end up working - directly or otherwise. It is a drive that has been so successful that the latest House of Lords report on the EU says that the net economic contribution of migrants in the UK has risen by 22 per cent - compared to 6 per cent for those of us born in the UK.

Far from being concentrated in small local enterprises or employed by the gangmasters, about whose worst abuses the government has shed so many crocodile tears, most of the migrants are working for large companies in central industries - often employed through agencies so that the supermarkets, hospitals, factories and hotel chains can wash their hands of responsibility for the appallingly low pay, long hours, bullying and dangerous co checkout operators and baggage handling staff are among the 345,000 whom employers intend will form the new working class - working in the conditions of "flexibility" and casualisation that generated the new unions 100 years ago. And the first responsibility for the exploitation lies with the government itself, which has legislated to ensure that Polish and other migrant workers enter the workforce on an unequal footing.

The WRS requires that you stay with an employer for a year - making it easy for companies to pay less than the legal wage and issue a false payslip or enforce unpaid overtime. And that's not where it ends. The destruction of the welfare state through the imposition of neoliberal policies, by means of the private finance initiative, housing stock transfers, private treatment shelters and city academies, is well known. Less publicised, but lauded by Migration Watch, of course, is the erosion of workers' right to access any form of welfare benefits or council housing, which is now being tested on the migrant workers.

The generally low wages and flexibility of the new migrant workers is actually nothing new - women and past migrants entered the workforce in just such conditions - and it is only a threat to our class if we fail to organise or let racism divide us. The recent ballots and strikes - involving migrant workers against unequal conditions, pay cuts or low pay by cleaners, Luton airport workers, Tesco staff, hospital workers and others - show that an alternative to division and exploitation is possible and that many workers are now entering already unionised workplaces.

December's magnificent - and successful - solidarity strikes in Ireland saw Polish flags and union banners side by side on the streets. Last autumn, bosses at First Bus found Polish workers and British-born workers uniting over pay and conditions, with Polish workers announcing that they found equality of bad treatment by the boss and solidarity from the other workers.

The old saying, "workers of the world unite," remains as relevant today as when Marx first put pen to paper.

• Elane Hefferman is a campaigner for the rights of migrant workers and asylum seekers in England.

MEP's Diary.... BAIRBRE de BRÚN

The May session of the EU Parliament was dominated by debate on the EU budget between 2007 to 2013 and the visit by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

The Strasbourg session opened on the Monday with open speeches and I took the opportunity to inform my fellow MEPs that a version of the Six County Assembly had reconvened earlier that day and that Irish republicans had demonstrated time and again our willingness to make the peace process work. MEPs were left under no illusions that we would not accept anything less than the full restoration of the Assembly and Executive.

Later that evening a debate ensued on European eel stocks where MEPs heard that stocks are declining so rapidly that the species could become extinct in the next number of years. A report was presented by Jan Maat MEP which sought to seriously address the issue. The glass eel is particularly vulnerable since large quantities of glass eels are exported to South East Asia and this has consequences for the industry as a whole. The report contained a number of sensible proposals with regard to closure times and re-stocking.

While local management of eel stocks must be based on knowledge of local conditions, international effort is needed if we are to be able to restock inland waters in the way that fishermen in Lough Neagh have done over the years. The European Union, national governments and local area fishery managers need to work in conjunction if we are to turn around this decline and ensure that the eel sector remains viable.

There was some good news for EU Commissioner Borg's acceptance of European Parliament amendments that mean closure periods for eel fishing will no longer be set arbitrarily at the first 15 days of every month. The Lough Neagh Fishermen's Co-operative has taken great care over the years to manage the fishery in such a way as to conserve stocks and the arbitrary closure period from the first to the 15th day of every month would have been disastrous for the industry here.

Mahmoud Abbas addresses parliament

On Wednesday Mahmoud Abbas finally got to address the EU Parliament. You may remember that he had been invited to Strasbourg in March but the visit was cancelled due to a looming crisis at home when Israeli forces attacked and demolished Jericho Jail. Many believe this was timed to prevent President Abbas from addressing the parliament in solemn session.

The importance of President Abbas's visit should not be underestimated. At present the Palestinian Authority is facing a severe humanitarian crisis. Following the Hamas election victory at the beginning of the year, both the European Union and the United States have frozen aid payments to the authority. It is my hope that this visit can help bring about an end to the suffering in Palestine where tens of thousands of public service workers have not been paid for over two months, essential services are beginning to come under severe strain and food and medicine shortages have been reported in the region. It is essential that both the Parliament and European Commission address the funding crisis.

Later on Wednesday the controversial EU Budget was agreed upon by the Parliament and a majority of MEPs agreed to slash the structural funds budget 2007-2013. I was extremely disappointed that the EU has once again prioritised headline economic growth at the expense of social and environmental concerns. This narrow focus coupled with scarcer resources will ultimately affect those most in need in a disproportionate manner.

The practical effects of such an ineffective and unbalanced programme for community spending in Ireland, North and South between 2007 and 2013 could see some of the most disadvantaged regions across the EU, and indeed in Ireland's border regions and the North West, hit hardest.

EU Foreign Ministers Agree 2009 Treaty Deadline

EU Foreign ministers have agreed a 2009 deadline for agreement on a new EU treaty. The deadline has been set after months of speculation on the discredited EU Constitution that was rejected by the French and Dutch last year.

The talks, which took place in Vienna last weekend produced fresh consensus on the need for EU treaty changes to be agreed at least before 2009.

The 2007-2009 timeframe is set to be included in the conclusions of an EU leaders' summit in mid June, with wrangling over the exact wording expected to continue until the last minute.

The weekend meeting also saw support for the idea that the term "EU constitution" be dropped, in order for any text to be ratified in France or the Netherlands.

German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, whose country is a firm supporter of the charter, said "In Germany, we live with a basic treaty which does not carry the name Constitution, but has the same legal quality. In this respect this is a point of departure."

But German diplomats were quick to say that Berlin is not ready to renegotiate the substance of the text - although a simple name change is not likely to satisfy France and the Netherlands.

Signalling a tough battle between two camps of member states, Dutch foreign minister Bernard Bot stated "you will see that states which have already ratified the constitution will put pressure on France, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Poland, which have no intention to ratify the treaty."

The Hague is under domestic pressure to secure substantial changes to the charter's text, with a poll for Dutch public television over the weekend revealing that 83% of the Dutch want another referendum if the constitution text is revised.

Strasbourg In Brief

  • Wednesday, 17 May was International Day against Homophobia and Bairbre de Brún marked the day by calling for a huge effort to particularly combat homophobic bullying in the workplace and in schools. "In order to achieve this, we need a concerted, active campaign to root out, challenge and eliminate discrimination wherever it exists", she said.
  • Bairbre de Brún has said that the British government is not yet complying with the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHR) and she has urged the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe to ensure that effective measures are undertaken to ensure full compliance. She made her comments after it emerged that an NIO delegation will travel to Strasbourg to argue that they are now complying with the Article 2 ruling which obliges them to conduct prompt, transparent and effective investigations into state killings.

An Phoblacht Magazine

AN PHOBLACHT MAGAZINE:

  • The first edition of this new magazine will feature a 10 page special on the life and legacy of our leader Martin McGuinness to mark the first anniversary of his untimely passing.
  • It will include a personal reminiscence by Gerry Adams and contributions from the McGuinness family.
  • There will also be an exclusive interview with our new Uachtarán Mary Lou McDonald.

Buy An Phoblacht magazine here

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