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Saturday 7 December 2019

'Bad old days' return for Irish on foreign sites

'FitzPatrick's Fusiliers' blame Anglo as they scour Continent for low-paid building jobs


They call themselves "FitzPatrick's Fusiliers", in what is a sarcastic reference to the disgraced former chief of Anglo Irish Bank.

And, like the heroes of Dominic Behan's famous old ballad, McAlpine's Fusiliers, a new generation of Irish migrant workers is discovering, "when the going is rough, well, you must be tough".

Thousands of Irish building workers are now seeking work in Europe and many blame Anglo Irish, the Government and other reckless lenders for the collapse of the construction industry at home.

But those who find work on the continent are discovering the hours are long and the pay pretty poor by Celtic Tiger standards.

The bad old days of 10 Irishmen sharing a three bedroom house in a foreign land are back, according to Paddy Redmond.

The Clondalkin-based bricklayer has plenty of experience working abroad and spent time in Canada, Holland and Germany at the start of his career in the building game.

Now, as he puts it himself, "the wrong side of 50", he spent four months in Antwerp in Belgium working as a brickie on a new medical facility.

He was one of 10 Irish construction workers who flew out at the same time from Dublin, Waterford, Armagh and Cork to work on the site.

The men shared a three bedroom accommodation to cut costs and maximise take-home pay.

"It's tough, but I met loads of Irish fellas on the road. Some of them are young, some of them the same age as myself. It's a tough enough station. Mostly it's a 12-hour, day, 7am to 7pm, and it was mostly price-work," he says.

His stint in the Belgium city coincided with the coldest winter in Antwerp in decades.

"I suppose the hours are long, but when you are away from home you might as well be working.

"It wasn't exactly comfortable back in the accommodation, so you were happy enough to work the hours and save the money."

Cheap Ryanair flights meant that most of the workers managed to get home for a weekend once a month or so.

"I felt it was very tough on the younger men who were leaving young children behind them, but what can you do? There's no work at home and bills have to be paid," he says.

Paddy Redmond has been a committed trade unionist all his life. But he found that while Belgium has very similar employment laws to Ireland, all migrant workers in a foreign country face challenges.

"There is no big money abroad. Irish and British workers on the buildings were the best-paid generally and then the Polish lads. But there were also workers from Hungary and Moldova and they were down the pecking order as far as I could see.

"They were paid less. It was a six-day week and because we were on price-work, you were paid by the metre of brick laid. There was pressure to finish work that had been delayed when it got too cold to lay bricks -- to make up the time," he says.

Paddy also spent time working earlier this year in the UK, one of about 20 Irish workers building the new football stadium of Brighton and Hove Albion, which will be known as the American Express Community Stadium when it is completed in May of next year.

Construction on the stadium began in December 2008, and Paddy was very surprised to see so many Irish workers on site.

"My son is still over there on that project. There were lots of lads from Drogheda, Cork, Waterford, Belfast and Armagh.

"It's a good job with decent pay. Some of the lads are on £14.50 [sterling] an hour. Others are just on price-work. It really depends."

"I think that there will be more and more Irish building workers going abroad in the next while. I can't see anything moving at home for a long time. You have to go where the work is," he says.

Another bricklayer named Stephen Murphy has spent most of his life in the building game, but went back to college to pick up a business studies qualification and recently began work teaching.

Last year, before he took a new career path, he was also in Belgium working in construction and found conditions tough.

"It was ironic that all the health and safety legislation is passed in Brussels, and we were just a few miles away from there and the standard of scaffolding was very shaky.

"The only rule was wear a helmet, but a lot of the safety rules that are normal over here are simply not enforced over there.

"I'm 45 now, and to be honest, three single beds in a room and being away from home is a young man's game. I did it myself when I was 18 but it's harder as you get older," he added.

Stephen says Irish brickies were being paid €28 a square metre.

"That isn't great. In Ireland that would be about 66 bricks. In Belgium it's about 120 bricks per square metre because they are smaller,"

he added.

Last weekend more than 4,000 attended the Working Abroad Expo at the RDS in Dublin.

The longest queues were at the Canadian, Australian and New Zealand stands, and those representing visa agencies. The entry fee was €10.

In the construction industry there is work in Europe and more and more Irish are in Poland.

One study suggested that there may be as many as 6,000 British and Irish workers in and around Berlin.

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