Immigration on election agenda after Rabbitte taps into politics of fear
LAST May, when French voters rejected the proposed EU constitution, the Polish plumber was widely credited with helping to tip the balance of public opinion against the draft treaty.
The proverbial Polish plumber came to exemplify the fears of the French public about cheap foreign labour from the 10 new member states.
The appalling vista suggested that the migrant hordes from Eastern Europe would steal French jobs, by undercutting their French counterparts on price. This crude scare tactic was designed to help the No campaign win the referendum campaign.
And it proved successful.
Earlier this month, Pat Rabbitte conjured up a different spectre, not of the Polish plumber, but rather of some 40 million Poles. And he was talking about the possible need for work permits, even for workers from EU member states, like Poland.
Since 2004, workers from the new accession states have had an unrestricted right to work here. As a political ploy this somewhat similar scare tactic has also worked, at least to judge by the latest Irish Times/TNS opinion poll. There, Labour has made a significant gain, up two percentage points to 16 per cent. As well, 48 per cent are now satisfied with the Labour leader's performance. And because Pat Rabbitte's main activity in recent weeks has been in articulating, and clarifying, his thoughts on immigration policy, this helps explain both his, and his party's, improved poll ratings.
Of course the French fears were not just greatly exaggerated, they were also a major distortion of the facts.
After EU enlargement, France and 11 of the 15 old EU member states, unlike Ireland, refused to open their labour markets to migrant workers from the new accession states.
France, however, has not been overrun by hordes of Polish workers, as work permits are still necessary. And because the French authorities have only issued 875 permits to the Poles, clearly such a low figure cannot include too many plumbers. The French voting public were reacting to a problem more imagined than real, and their reaction was based more on emotion than reason. Quite simply, the Polish plumber problem did not, and does not, exist.
Pat Rabbitte, by contrast, has claimed that a problem does exist with our immigration policy.
He claims evidence of the displacement of Irish workers in different industries. And he cites job losses in the hospitality, building and meat factory sectors, where he says non-national workers are replacing Irish workers at lower wages.
He has, however, some difficulty in producing much hard evidence to substantiate his claims, which he accepts are largely anecdotal.
For this he blames the lack of statistical data. And on this he is right.
At present, there is no way to identify what he describes as "the enclaves of low pay". Nevertheless, the broad figures that we do have scarcely sustain his case.
Last year, some 100,000 more people were at work in Ireland, in a workforce of two million. Unemployment has remained among the lowest in the EU, with the Irish economy experiencing virtual full employment. And despite a five per cent increase in the workforce, there was no rise in unemployment.
This suggests that many displaced workers may have taken other, better paid, jobs elsewhere in the economy, and that the migrant workers were easily absorbed.
Rossa White, an economist with Davy stockbrokers, has estimated that nearly half of the increase in employment last year was attributable to the non-national workers (mainly from the accession states, largely Poland). But he finds there is little to support the claim that foreign workers have been exploited by their having to accept low wages.
And he suggests the level of wage growth in the different sectors of the economy, which has averaged some five per cent overall, rebuts such a claim. Indeed without the influx of foreign labour last year, the likely consequences, he said, would be a tighter labour market, an overheating economy, higher inflation and lower growth. And without 50,000 migrant workers for the next four years, the Irish economy cannot operate at its full potential.
So why did Pat Rabbitte make such a big issue of immigration at this stage? Partly, because of the Irish Ferries dispute, which brought so many out in public protest last month, and which reflected a broader public concern about issues of general job security.
Partly, because Labour's trade union colleagues in SIPTU have made discussion of job displacement and immigration policy generally the price of their involvement in the new round of social partnership talks. And partly, because in Europe the draft services directive, which proposes an internal market for services, is due to be voted on by the European parliament next month.
It may well be decided before the end of June. That directive is designed to open up the market for services in the 25 member states.
It is seen as one way of accelerating the faltering EU growth rates, since some two thirds of the EU's national income is derived from services activities. It's most controversial aspect, however, is the "country of origin" principle, where those who provide a service in another country (such as Ireland) could be subject to the law of the country of origin of the service provider (such as Poland).
That, however, remains to be decided. As yet the final form the services directive will take is still far from clear.
What is clear, however, is that Pat Rabbitte has taken a calculated gamble on the immigration issue.
He has put the Labour Party at the centre of what promises to be one of the major political debates of 2006.
And to judge from the poll result, he has tapped into an area of growing public concern. Is he exploiting the politics of fear merely for electoral advantage, as his critics claim? That remains to be seen. But Polish plumbers, not least, may be interested in the answer.