More than 10,000 labor union members protested Friday in Ireland's capital and other cities over Irish Ferries' plan to replace its workers with low-paid Eastern European immigrants, in the country's most bitter industrial showdown for decades. Irish Ferries earlier this year offered its 543 unionized workers on its main Britain-Ireland routes payoffs worth Ђ25 million (US$30 million) if they quit voluntarily.
But when the company two weeks ago began introducing new workers, chiefly from Latvia, who were willing to work for Ђ3.60 (US$4.25), less than half of Ireland's minimum wage, union chiefs seized control of two ships, forcing the company to shut down services at an estimated loss of Ђ2 million (US$2.5 million) a day.
The government-appointed Labor Relations Commission brokered three days of negotiations this week, but failed to broker any common ground. Irish Ferries insists it's legal for an international shipping company to ignore Ireland's minimum wage, and has applied to register its ships in Cyprus to increase its leverage on the issue. The government has harshly criticized Irish Ferries and pushed, so far in vain, for a mediated compromise.
"It is not acceptable that you can displace Irish workers for people who would be paid much less than the minimum wage," Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern said in London. "I cannot force the management and ownership of Irish Ferries to do what I would like them to do," Ahern added.
The Irish Congress of Trade Unions, which represents more than 700,000 workers in this country of 4 million, backed Friday's protests in support of its largest member _ the Services, Industrial, Professional & Technical Union, or SIPTU, which has 200,000 members and represents most Irish Ferries employees. Members of several unions, including teachers and bus drivers, gathered in Dublin's Parnell Square, the home of several labor-union headquarters, for a march across the River Liffey to the parliament building, Leinster House.
Many carried placards said that read, "Stop outsourcing," a reference to the increasing practice of hiring low-paid immigrants from Eastern European states. More than 150,000 workers from the European Union's most recently admitted states, chiefly Poland and Latvia, have taken up jobs in Ireland in the past 18 months and are prominent in restaurants and pubs, and on construction sites and farms, reports the AP. N.U.