Irish Ferries Fly The Jolly Roger

The story of Salvacion Orge, the Filipino hairdresser who was paid ¤1 an hour by Irish Ferries through a sub-contractor was shocking in but actually served to draw away attention from a larger dispute and scandal.

Irish Ferries and its workers are currently in dispute over the bosses' plan to 'outsource' its workforce. This dispute has gone to the Labour Court, where it was ruled that Irish Ferries couldn't contract out officers' jobs to exploitation (sorry, 'employment') agencies. The contracting-out of officers' jobs had previously taken place, so the verdict was a victory of sorts. However the company took it that it was okay to outsource jobs such as those merchant sailors or deck staff not lucky enough to be officers.

SIPTU members on the crew had taken a vote for strike action on June 7th,but this has been forestalled by SIPTU bureaucrats and Irish Ferries management agreeing to conduct a 'comprehensive review of operations encompassing the Irish Sea and the Continental Corridor' on June 16th.This review will take six weeks to complete, and one of the conditions attached is that 'no further action of any form' will happen for the duration, and neither 'will there be any further media statements for the duration of the assessment process'.

Mind you, this is just the latest phase in a struggle that has usually occurred away from the gaze of the "fifth estate". The maritime workforce was the first globalised workforce, and the passenger ferries are the latest front in this struggle. These ferries were usually crewed locally, but recent changes to international labour law allow Irish Ferries and their likes to cast their net far and wide for the cheapest crew they can get.

Agencies like CF Sharp Crew (which was Salvacion's employer by the way) have been used by shipping companies for decades as a device to drive down sailors' pay, and to take the blame or legal responsibility for horror stories like Salvacion's . They operate in countries where labour laws are so unfair and so weakly applied that they facilitate this robbery from labour by ruthless profit-seekers.

Most merchant mariners come from relatively poor countries, where compared to on-shore jobs working at sea is well-paid.

There is no job security however, and wages and conditions at sea for workers have worsened significantly over the last 30 years. Not only do these brave men and women support families they rarely see, but there's a whole range of parasites living off their labour. International maritime law allows 'flag of convenience' registration which means that ships can be crewed by the cheapest workforce available to the bosses. Their greed is such that they'll search the world over for the unfortunate bunch of workers who'll put up with dangerous work conditions for low wages.

Salvacion Orge's case had a happy ending. Because of her refusal to be ripped-off and the support of her fellow workers she received a ¤25,000 severance pay-off and tickets home to her family in the Philippines. But it is worth reflecting on these things: Salvacion or her two Filipino co-workers did not get to keep their jobs; the legal structure of the exploitation planned by Irish Ferries will be refined and strengthened, not weakened. by losing in the Salvacion Orge case; and that Irish Ferries, and shipping bosses everywhere, are not giving up on trying to contract-out their way to greater profits!

by Ray Hanrahan

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This edition is No87 published in July 2005