From Ireland, EU hears hum of cheap labor

By Monday, Western Europe must decide whether to lift restrictions on low-wage Eastern European immigrants.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

A scruffy 22-year-old Pole in an oily blue T-shirt, Rafal Dambiec is an unlikely symbol of the European Union's idealistic vision of its future.

Just getting off his night shift as a gas station attendant, all he wanted to do Tuesday morning was to go to bed.

Wolfing down an Irish breakfast of sausages, buttered bread, and tea, Mr. Dambiec is a pioneer - albeit unlikely - of the cross-border get-up-and-go that EU leaders say will be key to their continent's economic dynamism and political strength.

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Two years after eight poor, former Soviet-bloc nations joined the EU, only Ireland, Britain, and Sweden allowthose new EU citizensto work freely within their borders.

On Monday, the rest of Western Europe will be challenged to offer people like Dambiec the sort of opportunities he has found in Ireland, and to make every European worker legal, in every European country.

Some governments have pledged they will. Others have hedged. Germany and Austria - bowing to voters' fears of a tidal wave of cheap labor from the East - have said they will maintain restrictions on migrant workers for as long as they are allowed to do so.

That, argues Hubert Krieger, an analyst at an EU think tank outside Dublin, is misguided. Welcoming an estimated 200,000 Eastern European workers over the past two years "did only good to Ireland's labor market and to its overall economic performance," he says. "All the alarmist signals at the beginning were wrong."

Nobody knows exactly how many new EU citizens are working in Ireland - they come and go freely and estimates of their numbers at any one time range from 50,000 to 150,000 - but their swift and enthusiastic arrival in order to snap up jobs has been a shock to the Irish system.

"Any of the figures we might have had in our heads at the start have been hugely surpassed," says Heidi Lougheed, a social policy analyst at the Irish employers' confederation.

Foreign population surges

Foreigners, who made up 3 percent of the population six years ago, now make up nearly 10 percent, says Macdara Doyle, spokesman for the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. "This is going to have massive economic and social consequences that are going to start showing up soon," he warns.

So far, most of the economic consequences have been good. The Eastern European migrants have filled gaps in the job market, fueling the "Celtic Tiger" boom that has seen the highest growth rates in Europe, and increased the government's tax and social security revenues.

And with almost full employment, none of the figures suggest yet that the cheap foreign laborers, generally willing to work at or below the 7.65 euros ($9.18) per-hour minimum wage, are pushing significant numbers of Irish workers out of their jobs.

"At a time of unprecedented inflows of non-national workers, participation by indigenous workers has increased" found a recent study by the AIB bank.

Unions worried by influx of cheap labor

The unions, however, are worried that all may not be as rosy as the figures suggest. An industrial dispute at the end of last year, for example, when a ferry company threatened to fire all its Irish seamen and replace them with Latvians ready to work for wages several times lower, "is a pointer" to what may be in store elsewhere, suggests Mr. Doyle.

To protect against similar incidents, unions and employers are hammering out the shape of a special tribunal that would rule on whether forced layoffs were genuinely unavoidable, or simply a prelude to rehiring minimum-wage foreigners.

Union leaders also complain that the apparently limitless supply of cheap labor has pushed real wages downward for the first time in 20 years. Though independent economists challenge union calculations, "the labor supply obviously has an effect on wages," says Mr. Krieger, the EU economic analyst. "It usually means wages won't increase to the extent they would have done."

Many of those earning the lowest wages, however, are no longer Irish.

"When we opened 10 years ago," recalls Giovanni Cafolla, owner of the "Trastevere" restaurant in Dublin's trendy Temple Bar district, "80 percent of our staff was Irish. The economy was not so good in those days, so the Irish were ready to work as porters. Today, they are not prepared to work at menial jobs, so it tends to be Eastern Europeans."

Mr. Cafolla pays his chefs and waiters more than the minimum wage.

But many Eastern Europeans coming to Ireland are not treated as well as Cafolla's staff. "A key feature of many of the cases that come in here is workplace exploitation," says Delphine O'Keeffe, who works at the "Migrants Rights Centre," a voluntary organization.

A number of high-profile scandals have drawn attention recently to cases of migrant workers being paid well below the minimum wage or being forced to work long hours in substandard conditions. The overstretched labor inspectorate cannot keep track of all the abuses, Ms. O'Keeffe complains, and the migrant workers themselves tend to "keep their heads down and not ask too many questions," adds Doyle.

So long as Ireland's economic boom continues, "the economy will just go on absorbing all these workers," predicts Ms. Lougheed. She cites government forecasts that suggest the country will need to import 50,000 foreign workers a year for the next decade.

An economic slump will be real test

But if and when an economic downturn comes, tensions between the local population and foreigners over jobs are likely to pose real problems. "When the foreign population is 10 percent and unemployment is 10 percent, things will get very interesting here," says Krieger sardonically.

The better integrated foreigners are at that time, the better off they'll be, experts say. Over the past two years, says Krieger, "we have learned that if you decide on economic immigration, you have to decide on social integration too."

But indications suggest the Irish aren't on board yet. Ronit Lentin, head of Ethnic and Racial Studies at Trinity College, Dublin, says many Irish people tend to regard the migrant workers as "stopgaps, economic units aimed at maintaining our way of life, not as people."

David Walsh, an intercultural consultant, says that "The Irish think of themselves as very welcoming of foreigners - and they are ... as long as the foreigners don't stay."

Belatedly, perhaps, the government is making a very public effort, through advertising campaigns and speeches by top officials, to remind the Irish - accustomed to being part of an overwhelmingly white, Roman Catholic, and homogeneous society - that Ireland is now multicultural.

Public attitudes change more slowly than economic reality, however. "The whole concept of monocultural Irishness is biting the dust," says Dr. Lentin, "and things are changing.

"But there is no real admission of that. The real consequences of rethinking our contract with our Irishness are still baffling."

Other observers are more sanguine, and say that with time, as the Irish grow accustomed to the large numbers of foreigners in their midst, they will also recall their ancestors' experiences as strangers in strange lands.

"The biggest issue is that this is all so new, it happened so fast," argues Pat Normanly, who works as the Equality and Diversity Officer at the capital's bus company. "There is a great opportunity to get it right, because of our history."

A tale of two immigrants: one homeless, one raking in cash

They came from the same country with the same dreams. Yet Rafal Dambiec and Leszek Nowakowski could not have ended up in more different circumstances.

Mr. Dambiec, 22 years old and garrulous in his newly learned English, rattles off the five jobs he has held in the four months since he arrived in Dublin from his home in northern Poland: a week in a warehouse "just to start," then a spell as a car valet, then a while on the reception desk of the hostel where he stays, then a week on a construction site, and now night manager of a gas station.

"I'm looking for something more responsible," he says. "This is an easy job but you do nothing actually. Just serve customers and clean the station."

Mr. Nowakowski, 52, asks a friend to translate for him as he explains, "I arrived here two months ago and I haven't found any work. I don't know why."

The result: He sleeps with four other Polish men in an abandoned shipping container. He eats twice a day at a soup kitchen run by Capuchin monks, and he showers at a shelter for homeless men.

Even for Dambiec it hasn't all been smooth sailing.

The week he worked on a construction site was a mistake, for example: A Brazilian guy he knew offered him a job, but ended up paying him only 50 euros ($60) a day for 16 hours' work - four times less than the legal wage.

But at the gas station, working seven nights a week, he can pull down 2,000 euros ($2,400) a month, he reckons, and save 1,000 euros ($1,200) of that. At home, working as a driver, he earned 150 euros a month.

"I want to stay till the summer, go back to Poland, give some money to my parents, come back here, stay one year and earn as much as possible, then go home to study journalism," he explains.

Nowakowski is not looking so far ahead. "I hope today will be the day a job falls," he says with a wry smile. "That's why I stay."

EU countries follow, slowly

May 1, 2004

Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Hungary, Slovenia, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Poland, Malta, and Greek Cyprus join the EU.

Out of the 15 "old" EU members, only Britain, Ireland, and Sweden agree to admit workers freely from the Eastern European member countries. The other 12 impose "Transitional Arrangements" (TAs).

May 1, 2006

All 15 "old" EU members must tell the European Commission whether they will maintain or change their TAs.

Portugal, Spain, Finland are expected to lift restrictions. France, Denmark, Belgium, Luxembourg, Italy, and the Netherlands are expected to maintain some sort of restrictions. Germany and Austria are expected to maintain current TAs. Greece has given no indication of its intentions.

May 1, 2009

All TAs will end, barring exceptional circumstances such as an undue threat to labor market stability. In such cases, states will be allowed two more years maximum.

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