Thu Jan 26th, 2006 at 05:07:53 AM EST
A survey carried out by the Irish Times this week
claims that 78% of Irish people would like to see a system of work permits introduced for immigrants from the 10 new EU member states. Ireland, Britain and Finland are the only three members to allow workers from the Eastern European states full freedom of movement.
The result has been that in a country where ten years ago any foreign face would have been remarkable away from the city centre has become a place where every daily task involves dealing with foreigners. Most of the supermarkets, shops and restaurants I frequent are staffed mainly by immigrants.
The Irish staff are either management, the very young or the old. Admittedly I live in a new suburb in a mixed socio-economic area - there are few native youngsters old enough to take these jobs - but the change is remarkable. Now, I'm not complaining: if we didn't have immigrants those checkouts would be empty and all the restaurants would be self-service or, more likely, cook-your-own-damn-food. Not to mention the improvement in the local scenery...
Unemployment in Ireland is around 4%, including long-term unemployed leftover from the bad old days that have probably never held much of a job in their lives and are very difficult to get into employment. The rate has actually fallen during the immigration boom. So what's the problem?
Just 23 per cent believe more foreign workers should be allowed come here, 41 per cent think there are
now enough here and no more should be admitted, and 29 per cent believe there are too many foreign workers here and that steps should be taken to reduce their number. Some 7 per cent gave no opinion.
There is a significantly higher desire for restrictions on foreign workers among the less well-of than the better-off. In the better-off ABC1 group, 30 per cent believe more foreign workers should be allowed come here, 41 per cent that there are now enough here and that no more should be permitted, and 20 per cent that there are too many and that steps should be taken to reduce their number. Some 10 per cent gave no opinion. (Irish Times (subs))
Support for work permits is, of course, highest among the working class.
The editorial in the same paper suggests that it is an unsurprising result in "a society in rapid transition which suffers from inadequate health, education and housing services." Housing is a particular problem. Rents are very high and house and apartment prices in even vaguely desirable areas are outside the means of people earning industrial wages - two-bedroom terraces in our area are reputedly selling for € 300,000 at the moment. We live an hour from the city centre. There is also a feeling that the immigrants are pushing down wages, though I suspect that, if anything, it would be more accurate to say that they are slowing the rise of wages. We have the following data:
In the lower-paid manufacturing sector, where some of the displacement is alleged to have occurred, the Irish Labour Market Review 2005 states that 2 per cent of manufacturing firms had production constrained due to difficulties in filling skilled and unskilled jobs. (Irish Times)
Perhaps the displacement is only affecting certain subsections of society?
The figures showed that for the year to December last year, 58,000 people were added to the labour force. Around 40,000 of those were migrant workers, while 18,000 were non-migrants. Many of these indigenous workers were older people choosing to go back to work and married women entering or returning to the workforce.
There's no sign of high youth unemployment, no sign that those who want to return to work are being displaced - my mother has two part-time jobs - and a decrease in unemployment. So there's no immediate rational reason for the attitudes showing up.
The real issue is fear. Irish society has changed immensely in the last generation. When I left school in 1988 the expectation still was that we would have to emigrate to get jobs. Mine was the last generation that had to travel as students to get half-decent summer jobs. By the time I left college there weren't enough people to fill the available jobs. I find the changes need some effort to deal and I'm well-educated, well-off and fairly cosmopolitan and foreign born. I can read the statistics and understand them. I'm not in competition with the vast majority of the immigrants. I don't feel I'm being left behind by the changes in society or in the economy - I'm benefiting from them. I spent most of my time in primary school in a mixed race school in London. I'm still overwhelmed by the newness of it all. (My main problem is etiquette though - how to maintain my customary gruff expression without letting it seem as if it's because the person is an immigrant. Maybe I need a badge or something - "It's not you, I don't like people.")
However if I was struggling, working in an unrewarding and poorly paid job and barely maintaining a reasonable life style I might feel differently. I might feel that I'd be paid more if there were less immigrants. I might feel my child would have been seen more quickly in the hospital if the immigrants weren't clogging up the system. I might not know that the problem with hospitals is simply that we closed wards in the 1980s and have never reopened them. I might not know that the health system is massively inefficient largely because it was used as a source of "jobs for the boys" by politicians around the country.
There is a perception that a lot of the immigrants are being paid less than minimum wage and that under the counter. This needs to be combatted by much stronger enforcement of employment law to ensure that the immigrants are competing on a fair basis with the natives. Not that there aren't a lot of natives doing exactly the same thing. The unions have responded to the issue largely on this basis - apparently they have been making a point of recruiting immigrant organisers and running "know your rights" campaigns.
There is a real danger that if we don't act quickly and carefully there will be a growth of real hostility to immigrants, especially when there is a downturn in the economy. The irony of the Irish, who suffered real racism abroad when we had to emigrate to survive - my title is taken from infamous signs in 60's England - fortifying against immigrants would be painful. I'd hate to see the title of this story on a real sign.