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6 March 1997 Edition

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Workers in struggle: Tiger tales of 1990s Erin

Is this the Ireland you live in? Is it filled with happy employees boasting of their 12 hours a day, six days a week work shifts down at the local transnational plant? Are there thousands of unemployed people who are ``social misfits'', and workshy ``course junkies''? Are there local communities queuing up waiting for the IDA to come to town so they can ``ride the Celtic Tiger''.

This is the Ireland of former Fianna Fáil Minister Máire Geoghegan Quinn, the small business group ISME and Enterprise and Employment minister Richard Bruton.

Taken together, they showed this week that the state's political elite and the lobbying interests that influence its policies are not only out of touch with economic realities but are deliberately presenting a very distorted picture of the 26-County economy.

Quinn's Dragons

Fianna Fáil's Maire Geoghegan Quinn is revelling in her new role as media arbitrator on RTE's whineline programme as well as nestling side by side with Garret FitzGerald on the inside pages of the Irish Times.opinion page columns. Last Saturday she took issue with the much argued over Working Time Bill. She claimed that that bill introduced by her former Government colleague Labour Minister Eithne FitzGerald was approaching the Irish economy as if it was ``the workplace of Industrial Revolution England: a place of sweatshops and salving children....of powerless and subservient workers''.

The reality according to Geoghegan Quinn is a bit different. She told the Times readers of ``big new electronic plants'' with workforces ``stuffed to the gills with education and earning good salaries''. These workforces boast ``ruefully about working 60 or 70 hour weeks''.

These workers, she argues, are ``not the Dickensian downtrodden''. They are not ``pushed to work long hours'' by their employers' dismissal threats but instead they are driven by ``mortgage commitments and the excitement of being in at a start-up''.

The real Ireland

It would be wrong to suggest that there are not some very well-paid workers in the growing technology sector. Yes, many new foreign companies do need a great commitment from their workers to make it through their start-up periods. The quality of labour is one of the factors that attracts many companies to site here in the first place.

However the picture Maire Geoghegan Quinn paints is the exception. There are just over 90,000 workers in the state employed by IDA-backed companies. Some would not recognise the picture Geoghegan Quinn painted. What would the redundant workers of Packard or Semperit think of her multinational pen picture?

The multinational and technology industries are currently on the crest of a wave with high demand for qualified workers and for the moment they get relatively high wages compared to other Irish workers. However, is Geoghegan Quinn proposing that 90,000 workers and their employers can dictate the hours and working conditions of the other 1.1 million workers?

The Working Time Act is not just a leftie charter aimed at doing down the IDA. It wasn't produced for the best of reasons but for many part-time and low paid workers it might just might make their lot a bit better.

Maire Geoghegan Quinn must live in a world where workers are not on zero hour contracts, where shifts never last 12 hours, where overtime payments, sick pay, holiday pay and pension contributions are always paid.

She must never walk down Dublin's O'Connell Street and see the fast food outlets who set out their terms of work and conditions in shopfront windows. Why do McDonald's and others make an issue out of giving workers paid holidays or a guaranteed £3 an hour wage? The answer is simple. Hundreds of other employers don't even provide these basic standards.

The unemployable

Putting the Unemployed Back to Work was the new document launched by ISME this week. It claims that ``Every society has a percentage of the population who are, for a variety of reasons, social misfits. The percentage could easily be as high as 100,000 or 40% of those currently classified as unemployed''.

ISME want more rigorous welfare checks on the unemployed with recipients being penalised if they don't accept a job offer.

They also are calling for the current Fás board to be replaced by a committee of industrialists, representatives of the unemployed and government officials. The aim of new schemes should be how effective they were for employers.

Here then is an interesting dilemma. ISME seems to be arguing that a blank cheque for welfare recipients is wrong, but at the same time lobbies the government to sudsidise the training that employers want their workforce to have. Surely this is a form of welfare for employers with the state taking on some of their costs. That is not to say it is wrong but just that it should be recognised for what it is - Welfare for business.

Riding the Tiger

``Now provincial towns can can look forward to beginning to ride on the Celtic Tiger''. This was the view of John Higgins, chief executive of the Western Development Commission, which welcomed this week the announcement by Enterprise and Employment Minister Richard Bruton that The IDA would be begin building forward factories at regional sites in a return to its failed policies of the 1970s and `80s. Foreign corporations that use the sites will be offered higher grants than those paid in the more used suburban industrial parks.

The IDA's failure to attract foreign investment to less developed regions has been highlighted already this year. Of the 13,179 new jobs created by the agency in 1996 only 1268 went to the west and North West regions.

There are two glaring problems with Bruton's new plan. First is the higher grants. For years the IDA has engaged in a costly bidding war with the IDB, the Scottish Development agency and others. Grants now run from £10,000 to £15,000 per job created. Multinationals are already overpaid for the benefits they get from siting in Ireland. The higher payments for siting in rural areas could start a new bidding war.

Secondly what about domestic industry and enterprise. Surely they should have access to the same funds as foreign companies Bruton has overlooked them in his plans. Once again Bruton is merely paying lip service to a problem. His proposals are clearly not a solution.

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1

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