Last October the Mushroom Workers’ Support Group issued a report into the exploitation of non-national workers in the Irish industry. The organization was founded by Sintija Pirite, who is originally from Latvia. Sintija worked two years on a mushroom farm when she first came to Ireland. The report was picked up briefly by the mainstream media, but has been dealt with more thorougly in the latest issue of Health and Safety.
According to that article, migrant workers in the mushroom industry are “Kept in the dark about their legal rights and health and safety standards, underpaid and working up to 80 hours a week, [while] many use dangerous chemicals without masks and are at risk of suffering mushroom workers lung.”
About half of Ireland’s mushroom farms fall within the Cavan/Monaghan constituency. Migrant workers can’t vote in this election, so it is no surprise to note that their blatant exploitation has not revealed itself as an election issue. The mushroom industry is one of Ireland’s largest argicultural ventures. The farms account for over 40% of all Irish fruit and vegetable output. In 2003, it was worth â‚¬124 million.
The Health and Safety Times article and support group’s report make for shocking reading. Below is an extract from that report, the personal story of one mushroom worker, “Irena”. The employers, needless to say, are Irish.
I am from Latvia. I am divorced and have two children. Both girls are being looked after by my mother while I am in Ireland. I came to Ireland in 2002 on a work permit to work in mushroom farm as mushroom picker. My sister was working here already and I came over. The main reason why I came to work in Ireland was to earn more money to buy an apartment back home in Latvia for me and my kids.
There are twenty women working on our farm. I signed some sort of work contract but I never received a copy of it or had a chance to read what was written on it. I know that the minimum wage in agriculture is now 8.12 per hour but I am paid â‚¬6 per hour. I never received a pay slip with my wages. Friday is pay day and I get my wages in a little brown envelope and on the back of it is written my wages minus â‚¬50 for rent. I only recently started to keep track of my hours.
I start work at 6am and work to 3pm and some days I work longer. I work seven days per week. The employer says that he is paying my taxes and PRSI but I don’t know if it is true. I don’t get paid overtime, Sunday pay, or public holiday pay and my holiday money is not what it should be. The other workers and I are threatened by our supervisor if we complain or if we join the meetings of the Mushroom Workers Support Group we are told that we can loose our jobs on the farm. I can’t take any complaint to the employer because my English isn’t good. The only way to communicate with the employer is through the supervisor and she says that she will deal with it and there is no need to talk to employer. But she never does. The supervisor opens our brown envelopes to count it and to know how much everyone gets. The supervisor turns the girls against each other. The girls are afraid to speak up in fear of losing their job.
The boss isn’t helping us with the complaints at all. We tried to talk to the boss and there were loads of promises to get us pay slips, contracts and proper wages. Nothing has changed. I got a pay rise in September from â‚¬5 per hour to â‚¬6 but I don’t know when was the last time the pay per kilo was brought up.
We don’t have any Health & Safety information. There are signs written on paper saying where we are not supposed to enter and what not to touch. They are all in English. I suffer from bad eyesight, coughing and some other girls have allergies from the mushroom spores in the flat houses.
The hardest thing for me was leaving my two girls in Latvia. If I had a choice to bring them to Ireland with me I still wouldn’t do it. They wont have anything to do here as I live in a village and I don’t have a car to bring them anywhere. I am also working every day and wouldn’t see them as often anyway as I am away most of the day. If I ask for a day off as I have done several times before the supervisor asks me, Am I really sure that I need day off? It is better that they are with their grandmother. We talk on the phone every day and I go home every once in a while to see them.
I feel very welcome in the local community. I used to go to English classes when they were held in the local centre. But I didn’t learn much in them are there were people with different levels of language and it was hard to follow. Someone who sat by me started to correct my mistakes and I don’t like that at all. I would like some trips to be organised so that I can see a bit of Ireland. If I got the chance I would like to learn Irish dances. I have been once in the hospital in Cavan and the nurses and every one was friendly to me. That was after I had accident on the farm. I was lifting heavy weights wrongly and had back trauma.”
The Mushroom Workers’ Support Group has called on “government agencies, specifically the Department of Enterprise Trade and Employment and the Health and Safety Authority, to immediately step up their efforts in the enforcement of labour law and health and safety standards on mushroom farms across the country. In addition, the government needs to support and protect workers to come forward in exposing the exploitation especially for those on work permits who are most afraid of coming forward.”
It has also called on supermarkets and shopowners “to take responsibility by putting in place mechanisms to ensure that the workers who cultivate the agriculture products that get to the shelves are treated fairly and in accordance with labour law and health and safety standards.”
The Mushroom Workers’ support Group’s report can be downloaded as a pdf here.