Mar 4, 2005

Construction Jobs in Ireland

World News Article |

An army of construction workers from all over Europe has invaded a Dublin suburb to finish building the biggest shopping centre in Ireland.

Languages from Hungarian to Polish to Romanian spill out from the fast-food restaurants on the high street, reflecting booming Ireland's new status as a magnet to builders from all over Europe.

"Ireland pays the best," said Paolo from Portugal, sipping from a polystyrene cup during a break on the edge of the 18- acre building site. He says Ireland pays nearly 50 percent more than similar work in Germany or Holland.

For centuries Irish construction workers emigrated to the United States or Britain to find work. Now Ireland has to import labour from abroad to build transport links, houses and shops for its fast-growing economy.

The Irish helped build the London underground system, the Manchester ship canal and the New York subway.

The back-breaking work and dangerous conditions they suffered building some U.S. railways led to the expression that the tracks had "an Irishman buried under every tie (sleeper)".

More recently, Irish labour powered the British post-war building boom of the 1950s and 1960s, throwing up blocks of flats and motorways across the country.


But Ireland's economic boom of the last 10 years has changed all that.

The number of construction workers has more than doubled over the past 10 years, with almost one in eight employed in the island now working in the building industry.

And there is still a shortage of workers.

The hunger for builders is fuelled by projects like the 850 million euro Dundrum shopping centre which opened its doors on Thursday.

The development will house a theatre, cinema and shops including the upmarket British department store Harvey Nichols and the first Irish branch of Swedish clothing chain Hennes & Mauritz.

Officials say it's difficult to estimate the number of immigrants from the newly enlarged European Union in Ireland as they do not need visas to enter, but one labour union representative said 45,000 Poles work in the country.

There is another, darker, side to the booming industry.

Unions have investigated some contractors who they say could be exploiting workers from non-EU countries such as Ukraine, Romania and Turkey by paying knock-down wages.

So far there have been no complaints from Irish builders about foreign labour pushing down good wages that average around 600 euros (314 pounds) a week.

"There is plenty of work so everyone is happy at the moment," said Eric Fleming, construction secretary at the Services, Industrial, Professional and Technical Union (SIPTU).

But he said Irish workers may start to gripe if work dries up and construction companies slice into pay packets to maintain profitability in fights for contracts.

"This boom can't continue forever," he said.

Complaints from Irish builders against foreign colleagues would echo the Shoreditch riots of 1736 when London workers rose up against their Irish counterparts in the belief that they were working for less and pushing down wages.

The experience of the Irish builder has come full circle.

© Reuters 2005. All Rights Reserved.

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