Irish ferries: blame us all

LAST week I bought a pair of jeans in Pennies for €4. This week I’m outraged at the treatment of the Irish Ferries workers. These two events are not unconnected. These two events are incompatible.

No Irish worker could produce a pair of jeans for €4. The only way that we could produce jeans for that sort of price would be to use gigantic computer controlled machines. But even that doesn’t pay. Third World people are cheaper still.

Irish Ferries want to replace their workers with cheaper workers. Because it’s up close we can see how callous this strategy is. But our manufacturing industry, especially in textiles, has been doing this for years. And we have all been buying the cheaper goods that are the result of this process.

Up to now the practice has been that the factory is shut down and the manufacturing is moved to a third world country. Now, it seems, the third world is coming to us.

This is very worrying because it’s happening while Ireland is still booming. Most Irish people are still finding it easy to find work. But what will happen when the inevitable downturn comes? While there be social and racial tensions? It’s had to see how it can be avoided but that’s a worry for another day.

The damnable upside is that no low-paid worker could survive in Ireland. Try paying a mortgage on the minimum wage. Try even living on the minimum wage without a mortgage. A lot of the immigrants might conclude that they would be better off at home.

We all want low prices. Yet we all want decent working conditions. It’s not easy to square these things up. 

This is where the whole argument about globalisation meets reality. Employers can source their labour where they like and we as consumers can buy our stuff from where-ever we like. It’s pretty much the same debate as on the Groceries Order or on the cap on the size of supermarkets which threatened to keep Ikea out of Dublin. If you want local employment or local shops, you’re going to have to pay more. 

Our duty as western consumers is to shop. The things we shop for will be made elsewhere. We pay for the goods using credit and miraculously the things we own, like our houses, become more valuable allowing us to borrow more, consume more, and so on. Were like the lords of the manor – they work, we consume. Can it last?

So who’s to blame for the ferry workers’ predicament? Are we just arguing about the bad handling of the situation by the Irish Ferry management? If it had passed quietly, would any of us be bothered?

The fact is that there is no future in low-skill work in Ireland. If your work can be done easily, by a computer or by a poor guy, then you need to think about upskilling. 

The Irish Ferries dispute is threatening social partnership, a cornerstone of the Celtic Tiger. The unions are threatening to walk away from partnership unless the ferry workers are treated fairly.

I hope there’s still mileage in the union position. But they might find that since the arrival of partnership in the 1980’s the workers are now only interested in being consumers. Buying cheap at any price.