ON April 13, 189 migrants from Bulgaria were flown into this country to work for Keelings, the Dublin-based fruit farmers. Following publication on social media of a photograph of the group walking through Dublin Airport, a storm was kicked up. Questions were asked about social-distancing rules, quarantining, and the arrival of foreign workers during a pandemic.
Much of the controversy was misplaced. It appears that no rules were broken. However, the incident did open up discussion about the conditions of employment of these workers.
Migrant labour has been a feature of the domestic economy over the last 20 years. As in other wealthy countries, there are jobs in the low-skilled sector in Ireland for which it is difficult to find sufficient local interest.
Today, freedom of movement within the EU easily facilitates the sourcing of workers from the poorer regions of Europe to do this work.
The conditions under which migrants work in the low-skilled sector should be of interest to anybody who has the slightest knowledge of history. The Irish once were those migrants, fleeing poverty, often exploited, frequently removed from their families in order to put bread on the table.
One example was the annual pilgrimage of “tattie-hokers”, or potato pickers, from Donegal to Scotland. As revealed by the writer Patrick MacGill, who took that route as a 14-year-old in search of work, conditions were often brutal.
Today, we live in allegedly more enlightened times. Working conditions are governed by law, including minimum-wage legislation and EU employment law.
But is a blind eye turned to some aspects of how these workers are treated? Last week, the trade union Unite released a video interview with a Bulgarian man who worked for Keelings for a summer a few years ago.
He described how he had been recruited and the conditions under which he worked. There is nothing in his account to suggest that Keelings acted illegally. The bulk of this man’s claims were put to Keelings for a response or comment. A public relations agency, retained by the company, issued a brief statement to this columnist: “Keelings decline to respond.”
The man interviewed went by the name Milcho. He is from Plovdiv, Burgaria’s second city. He heard that there was work for fruit pickers in Ireland and attended an interview. This was conducted by an agent, a native of Bulgaria. This agent, according to Milcho, charged a fee of €500 or so, which included translation services and the flight to Dublin. The fee represented more than a month’s wages in Bulgaria. A return flight was not included.
The video also included a claim that some of the workers who arrived in Dublin on the flight last month paid up to €750 to this agent.
The contract Milcho signed was for 12 weeks, but eight weeks of this was deemed probationary. Why the probation period is so long was unexplained.
Milcho said that on the Ryanair flight to Dublin, most of the passengers were migrant fruit pickers. On arrival, they were transferred to accommodation provided by Keelings, for which they were charged €95 a week. According to Milcho, he earned around €1,200 a month over the term of the contract. By those figures, in which the workers are paid the legal minimum wage, nearly half of their earnings are eaten up by the agent’s fees and the price of accommodation.
Milcho alleges he was told, after eight weeks, that there wasn’t enough work to see out his contract. Through the Bulgarian agent, he was informed that he could get another month’s work in Scotland, but he would have to find his own way there. In the video, a letter to Milcho is shown in which he is informed that his contract would be terminated, because the crop for that year was not as good as expected.
Questions do arise as to how workers are recruited by an agent in Bulgaria to whom they must pay a fee. A prospective employee paying a fee to an agent is alien to recruitment practices in this country. Charging workers flown in for seasonal work for accommodation is not illegal, but it certainly eats into the minimum-wage stipend.
What emerges is a picture in which migrant workers are brought here to do work that, after deductions and accommodation, pays less than the jobseeker’s allowance. During the pandemic, the Government has decreed that the minimum amount workers need to sustain themselves is €350 a week, double the net income of some migrant fruit pickers.
While Keelings declined to respond to the above claims, the company did issue a statement on April 16, following the controversy about the workers flown in three days earlier. The statement pointed out that the company adhered to all employment laws and, during the harvest season, employed about 900 “temporary horticultural workers”.
“This is demanding work, requiring a high level of dexterity and product knowledge,” the statement read. “Up until the late 1990s, we recruited most of our seasonal workers locally, but over the last 20 years, there has been less interest from Irish people in this work.”
So the company has recruited from Eastern European countries within the EU.
“This year, we recruited in the usual manner over the winter and commenced our job offers at the end of October 2019 to experienced horticultural workers,” the statement read.
But it went on to note that there was an attempt, also, to recruit Irish workers. “We advertised locally over two weeks ago and, up until last evening, we had 27 applications, which falls significantly short of our labour needs.”
A question arises as to why recruitment for this season was organised last winter, but attempts to recruit locally only commenced at the beginning of April.
Is it more attractive for companies employing seasonal workers to look abroad? If so, why?
Keelings’ statement made reference to the company’s relationship with the workers. “We are proud of our relationship with the seasonal employees, most of whom return each year and some of whom have been coming to us for more than 10 years.”
There is no reason to believe that Keelings is an outlier in its recruitment policies and practices towards migrant labour.
But the whole sector would benefit from closer regulation and greater transparency.
The workers who come in here seasonally, just like the Irish migrants of yesteryear, are, to the greatest extent, dependent on the benevolence of their employers for fair treatment. They work at the furthest reaches from the centres of power, often not even having a grasp of the domestic language. They don’t have a vote, so most politicians only retain a faint interest in their plight.
What if the ghosts of Irish seasonal migrants of old showed up here today? Would they be proud of how their native country, the land they had to flee, now treats their economic kindred spirits?