The country’s biggest union, Siptu, has received one complaint an hour every day this year regarding worker exploitation on building sites, it emerged today.
Most of those allegations were made by immigrants claiming poor pay and being threatened with the sack if they try to expose unscrupulous employers.
Eric Fleming, Siptu’s organiser for the construction sector, said there were not enough Labour Inspectors for the mammoth amount of checks needed.
“There has been approximately one complaint at least of exploitation every hour since Christmas,” he said.
“We get an enormous amount of people coming in to us. They come in of their own accord or the Labour Inspectors send them over to us. The reason for that is that they are not geared to handle that level of activity in the economy.
“The level of exploitation is just too much for them to deal with.”
Siptu has recorded well in excess of 1,000 complaints. The alarming figures came as the Labour Court revealed its caseload increased for a fifth successive year. Between 2000 and 2005 the number of cases heard increased from 495 to 812, a 64% rise, its annual report said.
Industrial relations cases make up the main work of the court, accounting for 90% of the total cases referred in 2005. The report showed the court held almost 100 more hearings last year than in 2004 and received almost 1,400 referrals.
But two other areas were also contributing significantly, complaints by trade unions and employer bodies alleging breaches of the Registered Employment Agreements, reflecting the huge increase in activity in construction. Another area of disputes is where employers will not engage in collective bargaining.
Cases involving complaints over Registered Employment Agreements have increased by 340% in the five years since 2000.
Siptu began recording complaints from builders in the wake of the Gama Construction scandal last year which found hundreds of Turkish workers were not being paid properly.
The Department of Enterprise at present employs up to 30 inspectors, but at the height of the Gama dispute union leaders claimed only five were in place. Under the latest national wage agreement ‘Towards 2016’, there is a commitment to employ 90.
Mr Fleming also accused inspectors of spending too much time checking minor infringements of employer agreements rather than dealing with the real issues.
“They are not spending enough time on construction sites. They are not tracking down what is going on. There is a lot of work in it and it is a messy business but the inspectors spend too long looking at misdemeanours in sweet shops than on the real problem.”
Employment has gone up from around 1.6m in 1996 to nearly 2.1m by February of this year. The construction sector accounts for 255,800 workers, according to the Central Statistics Office.
Kevin Duffy, chairman of the Labour Court, said complaints would rise due to increased activity in construction.
“This is a reflection of the increased economic activity in the sectors affected, mainly the construction sector, combined with a higher level of monitoring by the unions and the Construction Industry Federation of compliance with the agreements,” said Mr Duffy.
Arthur Morgan, Sinn Féin workers’ rights spokesman, also criticised the lack of extra staff and resources despite the ever-increasing caseload.
“There has been a steady increase totalling 64% in caseloads in the five years since 2000 but despite this, and the massive increase in the workforce, the court was granted only one additional administrative staff member since 1996,” Mr Morgan said.