Monday, June 7, 2010

Going the GAMA Route

While the recent horrible Arizona immigration law has shocked the nation, one would expect that President Obama would have some harsh words. And he did have some harsh words, going so far as to call the law "misguided" (Them's fightin' words!).

More recently Obama has had the opportunity to put those words into actions. So, to show his opposition to the attack on immigrant rights he has . . . sent another 1,200 National Guard troops to police the border costing the taxpayers $500 million.

This is known as "The Duke of Plaza-Toro School of Progressive Politics" characterized by timid advances followed by valiant retreats. This is also how Obama went from the promise of Universal Health Care to a "historic" bill that forces people to give money to private insurance companies.

Of course, what Obama's doing makes perfect sense. There are midterm elections coming up. With the Arizona immigration law, no non-white person would willingly vote Republican, so he has to appeal to the people who thing Ray Stevens isn't horrible. Naturally, he'd cave into some of their demands. From the perspective of the two-party system, it's what anybody would do.

But from the perspective of immigration, it's completely horrible. The only reason why immigration is a problem is that anti-immigration laws make immigrants easier to exploit. If you wanted to help Americans concerned about their jobs you should call a blanket amnesty for all immigrants living in the US and allow them to join trade unions and, most importantly, support cross-border workers' struggles to lift up the standard of living world-wide.

This is called internationalism. And it's how you get results.

Take, for example, the countries Ireland and Turkey. Back in 2004-2005, the Irish government was run by a coalition of the right-wing Fianna Fáil and Progressive Democrats. They had made a deal with GAMA, the largest construction company in Turkey, where they would be responsible for most of the construction of city projects. This was done primarily by migrant workers from Turkey. For the migrant workers, the ability to stay in Ireland was dependent on their maintaining their jobs with GAMA, which prevented them from being able to defend their workplace conditions.

The workers were eventually made members of the Trade Union SIPTU, but the SIPTU leadership believed in the policy of "partnership" with management (aka The Duke of Plaza-Toro School of Trade Unionism). As such they agreed to allow the Turkish workers to be segregated from the Irish workers. They never even informed many of the Turkish workers that they were in a union, and never made any substantial effort to defend them against the union's "partners".

The two ruling parties were aggressively right-wing as was the main opposition Fine Gael. These parties actively supported the exploitation of migrant labor while also scapegoating immigrants when it suited them. Other opposition parties, such as the Labour Party, the Green Party and Sinn Féin gave lip service against this, but never took up the fight. But then there was the Socialist Party, part of the Committee for a Workers' International, which was willing to take on GAMA.

Unlike the Democratic party in the US, the Irish Socialist party did not control both the executive and legislative branches. With one Teachta Dála (member of Irish Parliament) and four city councillors, they were far short of being filibuster-proof. But they had what counted.

In November 2004, Mick Murphy, Socialist Party councillor for South Dublin had been informed during a strike of Irish workers that the Turkish GAMA employees were being paid €2.50 an hour and that GAMA had been breaking health and safety codes. Did he respond by calling that "misguided" and calling on the city council to spend lots of taxpayer money to attack immigrants? Nope. He contacted Turkish left-wing activist Baki Uzunkaya and they investigated the claims by personally talking to the Turkish workers, and found they were being paid €2.20 per hour despite the minimum wage of €7 per hour.

When this was discovered, the Socialist Party TD Joe Higgins brought up the issue in parliament on February 8, 2005. Even though he was in a minority of one he was able to embarrass the Taoiseach (prime minister) Bertie Ahern, to agree to an official investigation.

After this, the Irish Examiner wrote (March 24) "In Leinster House, and even in union circles, the whispers had it that Mr. Higgins had overstepped the mark and abused parliamentary privilege by making such sensational allegations." GAMA tried to further this impression and hampered investigations by threatening to deport workers who cooperated. But, knowing that people involved in the investigation were on their side, many Turkish workers were willing to give off-site interviews that confirmed the allegations.

Furthermore, it was discovered that GAMA had funneled off a large part of the workers' pay into an obscure Dutch commercial bank called Finansbank. This was very publicly confirmed when the Socialist Party, in conjunction with the Offensief, the Dutch CWI, led a group of GAMA workers to Finansbank to claim their missing pay, all caught on camera by RTÉ (Irish version of the BBC).

But there's more. Normally, when an immigrant-abuse scandal is discovered, the result is that all the workers get deported. But this was being led by the Socialist Party, and not an anti-immigrant group, and they made sure to draw attention to both the exploitation of the migrant workers and the attempts to drive down the wages of native-born workers. This made it much harder to pit the two groups against each other. The result was that the GAMA workers went on strike nationwide. And they won! Despite the threat of deportation.

Part of this was because the Socialist Party didn't confine itself to electoral work. They went to the GAMA workers and informed them of their rights and organized solidarity. Union activists in the Socialist Party put pressure on their union leadership to support the strike. When the Turkish government threatened their families and accused them of being in league with Kurdish terrorists, the CWI organized protests at the Turkish Embassies in Stockholm, Berlin, Jerusalem, Brussels, London and Vienna.

Eventually the Labour Party and Green Party, who had previously tried to stifle Mick Murphy's original investigation, and the SIPTU leadership, who should have conducted the investigation in the first place, were dragged into giving support for the strike (leading their regiment from behind).

While this was going on, there was a ruling in the High Court on April 22, 2005, that the media should not be granted access to the labor report that exposed GAMA's theft. On June 14 another High Court ruling overturned the entire report, not on the basis of its legitimacy (it was clear based on the RTÉ report that it was legitimate) but because of a technicality that the Minister in seeking publication exceeded the power given to him in legislation.

But because of the strike and the Socialist Party's public exposure of GAMA, the company agreed to pay their workers a total of €20 million that they had siphoned off to Finansbank (and this was when the Euro was still worth something).

I should point out that GAMA's exploitation of immigrant labor was not an aberration. In the aftermath of GAMA, other similar scandals were uncovered, at Irish Ferries, McCann and Sons housing, Doyle's Concrete and Carrickacroy Mushrooms. But Labour Party leader Pat Rabbite's response to this was to play the race card and support anti-immigrant policies, saying:
"The time may be coming when we will have to sit down and examine whether we would have to look at whether a work permit regime ought to be implemented in terms of this non-national labour, even for countries in the EU . . . there are 40 million or so Poles after all, so it is an issue we have to look at." (The Irish Ferries dispute concerned exploitation of Polish migrant labor).

This is also not limited to Ireland. You can hardly throw a brick without hitting a corporation exploiting immigrant labor in an attempt to drive down the wages of native-born workers. In Madison, the Mexican restaurant La Hacienda has been engaged in the same practice. The workers at La Hacienda have contacted the Workers' Rights Center in Madison who have held pickets in front of the restaurant, but the workers themselves are to scared of the possibility of deportation to go on strike. This is especially the case with the recent assault on immigrants rights. As such the workers at La Hacienda are still being paid below minimum wage.

I should also point out that the Democrats control the executive and legislative branches of government, the Wisconsin state government and in Madison itself, the Democrats main competition is not the Republicans but the more left-wing Progressive Dane. Not to mention most trade unions are run by Democrats. But Ireland was run by the Irish versions of the Republicans, and the Socialist Party was able to accomplish this with one TD and four city councillors.

If there was a political party in the US based on the working class with a genuinely internationalist position they would be able to cut across the divide-and-rule immigration policy even under a Republican administration. Even if this party was confined to an extreme minority. As it is we have a Democratic administration, elected on a promise of hope and change that specifically included immigration reform, but immigrants are still to scared to defend their rights.


  1. Funny, there is a national law that is NOT enforced regarding ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION, but when a state that is tired of the horrible crime enacts a law like the national one, enforces it, goes through with it then the is issues with it. Really should be continue allowing this to go on? If you do, you obviously do not understand the illegal immigration issue on the border states. Set aside your liberal views and use common sense.

  2. Sorry, Aristomachus, but your argument holds no water. If your sole concern was ILLEGAL immigration then you should just call for a repeal of the anti-immigration laws and then, poof, the ILLEGAL immigrants become LEGAL immigrants. Problem solved.

    The laws that restrict immigration are primarily a divide and rule tactic to pit foreign workers against immigrant workers, legal or otherwise, to make it harder for them to fight for a better standard of living.