On board: going across the sea to Ireland

By contributor Sean Carey

The last time I travelled from the U.K. to Ireland on board the Isle of Inishmore was eight years ago. Then all the members of the crew I encountered were Irish. Now, apart from the disembodied Irish captain’s voice coming from the bridge welcoming all those on board and providing a weather forecast, all the voices I hear and people I meet are East European.

My experience this past summer on board an Irish Ferries’ vessel was a lesson in the complexities of migration. The vessel makes a four hour crossing between Pembroke Dock in Wales and Rosslare in the Irish Republic and back again twice a day in the high season and once in the low season.

Isle of Inishmore, 2010. Flickr/John Barnabas Leith

Where have the new crew members working on the Isle of Inishmore come from? To find out I talked with Zydranus, a 35-year-old Lithuanian, who stands on one of the decks welcoming passengers. He has worked for Irish Ferries, part of the Irish Continental Group (ICG), for three years. Zydranus reveals that there are now very few Irish people working on the boat — one of the two captains (the other is British) and a couple of engineers in the engine room. He doesn’t know what happened to the former Irish crew members. He says that East Europeans –- mainly Polish, Lithuanian, Latvian and a small number of Estonians — have been working on Irish Ferries’ vessels for several years.

Hearing this account I assumed that the replacement of most Irish and other crew members by Eastern Europeans was part and parcel of the conventional globalization narrative in which Ireland, the one-time “Celtic Tiger,” had played a starring role. It would go something like this: the boom in the Irish economy which lasted from 1995 to 2008 meant that young Irish people no longer wanted to work at sea, preferring less demanding and better paid jobs on land. The resulting gap in the labor market meant that they were replaced by migrant workers keen to better themselves in a foreign land. In other words, everyone wins from an economic point of view.

On my return to the U.K., however, I found that this was not the case. In fact, there was a bitter dispute between Irish Ferries and the crews’ Dublin-based union, Siptu. It was announced in September 2005 that the company, citing competition from budget airlines like Ryanair and easyJet as well as other ferry operators, would replace the existing workforce with less well paid foreign workers in order to protect the bottom line.

Map of ferry routes between Ireland, the UK, and France. Flickr/hollaBackpackers

The result was that three Irish and one Welsh crew members barricaded themselves into the engine control room of the Isle of Inishmore for three weeks until a deal was struck in December. The deal allowed those who were currently employed and who wanted to continue working to do so. Siptu also obtained a promise that East European workers would get at least the Irish minimum wage. However, the union failed to change the company’s policy to register its vessels abroad.

Back on board the Isle of Inishmore in late August, I talked to two friendly receptionists, Evilina, 33, and Michal, 27, who are from Lithuania and Poland respectively. They tell me that most of the 86-strong crew are recruited by agents in Poland and Latvia. Some like Michal come from seafaring backgrounds, but others like Evilina do not.

For the most part, the modern global shipping industry is an exclusively masculine preserve. But passenger ferries are in a different category –- part shipping and part hospitality sector. The latter allows female workers an entry point.

So how is the crew organized? Evilina explains that apart from the specialist jobs on the bridge and in the engine room performed by men, all crew members, male and female, are contractually obliged to take on a variety of jobs on board the Isle of Inishmore –- serving drinks in the bar, serving food in the café, stocking the shop (Guinness flavored chocolates are a customer favorite) and working at the tills, as well as changing the bed linen and cleaning the cabins when passengers have departed.

Some general jobs are gender specific: “Like the storeman is always a man,” says Michal. Why is that, I ask? “Well, if a sack of potatoes has to be brought up from below to the kitchen then that is a heavy job so it is better that a man does it otherwise a woman might hurt her back.” Evilina nods in agreement.

Crew members on board Irish Ferries vessels work for two months and then have one month off. They are flown home by the company from Dublin airport to their respective home countries. “The airline we take depends on what the company has booked for us,” says Evilina. “Sometimes Aer Lingus, sometimes another one.”

Before I boarded the Isle of Inishmore in Pembroke Dock on the outgoing journey, I spotted a shop selling Lithuanian products. I assumed that the ferry’s crew would probably live in the town’s harbour area or its equivalent in Rosslare. Wrong. All crew members live on board the Isle of Inishmore, whether they are on duty or not. Evilina says that even though there is a two-shift work pattern, all crew members have to be available 24 hours a day — “in case of emergency, God forbid.”

This pattern of living must undoubtedly be of great benefit to Irish Ferries who have solved the problem of absenteeism at a stroke. It is also beneficial to the crew because they can save almost all of their wages since accommodation and food are  part of the employment package. The financial surplus can then be invested in savings accounts, land, houses and small businesses in the crew’s home countries, which helps economic growth and social development.

Lessons? At least two. The first is that the new structure of work on board Irish Ferries’ vessels even if it was on offer would no longer be an attractive proposition for most Irish and UK workers. Put simply, being cooped up for eight weeks at a time is not an option that most people would sign up for. That said, all the East Europeans I met on the Isle of Inishmore told me that they are very happy with their working conditions and wages. Evilina summed up the general mood: “As long as we keep getting good contracts we will keep working.”

The second lesson is that Siptu may have won the battle in 2005, but it lost the war. Globalization is an even more complex business than I thought.

All names have been changed

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