Irish Ferries dispute threatens ‘partnership’ process

November 29th, 2005 | by Andrew Ó Baoill |

Those outside of Ireland may not have caught wind of the current dispute at Irish Ferries, but for those paying attention, the manner in which this single dispute has catalysed much of the tension in industrial tensions, while exemplifying many of the absurdities of globalization and the neo-liberal market-focused policies of the European Union, together with the dangers for the nation-state and society, is striking.

In short, Ireland being an island nation ferry services are vital both to freight trade and for travel by individuals (especially when flying doesn’t suit). As the current Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, said in 2001:

Shipping plays a crucial role in the Irish economy. Transport and logistics are essential to the competitiveness of any island nation – but are the virtual life blood of our economy which is the second most open economy in the world. Trade now accounts for over 160% of our GDP and the shipping industry is an essential part of our economic success story to date.
(at the naming ceremony for the Irish Ferries vessel Ulysses, perhaps ironically)

Opposition politicians have been highlighting for some time the risks if the government were divest itself of its interest in the national airline, Aer Lingus. Now we’re seeing those risks manifest themselves in the ferry industry, where the dominant company, Irish Ferries – owners of the aforementioned Ulysses, the largest car ferry in the world – have decided to ‘reflag’ their ships with ‘flags of convenience’ – Cyprus, to be precise – and thereby evade Irish employment law. To go with this, they are in the process of replacing their crews with agency staff from Eastern Europe, who will be paid below the Irish minimum wage.

As has been pointed out, it’s perverse that ferries that travel only between two states – Ireland and the UK, or Ireland and France – spending hardly any time, if any, in International waters, should be able to operate under another legislative arrangement of their own choosing, denying their staff the protections of the states where they are essentially based.

This move, which has seen two stages, first where a small number of employees were engaged under the ‘new’ (exploitative) system, and now with security staff being smuggled onto vessels, in order to ‘protect equipment/health and safety’ [or perhaps just intimidate] while agency staff were shipped in to replace those who have accepted ‘voluntary severence,’ has precipitated a major crisis in Ireland industrial relations, which has seen over 15 years of a ‘partnership’ system.

Workers on the ferries are now barricaded on board, looking for security staff and agency staff to be removed (the goons have been removed just before I wrote this piece), and the ships are stranged in Welsh ports. Dock workers in Rosslare have refused to handle the Ulysses upon its arrival from France. Unions in general are refusing to begin negotiations on the next partnership agreement until a satisfactory solution is found to this issue – so far the government is merely claiming impotence. Employer groups, unsurprisingly, are claiming that the unions are over-reacting, and calling for business as normal.

I’m unsure how much traction the issue has among the Irish public at the moment, or whether the tension will continue to build, but it seems to have the sort of resonance that can gain public sympathy and give the unions some extra pull in the complex dance that is industrial relations.

  1. One Response to “Irish Ferries dispute threatens ‘partnership’ process”

  2. By Robert Leili on Jan 17, 2006 | Reply

    Good luck to the industrial working class of Ireland. Globalisation sucks!

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