Photo by Mac DeStroir on Pexels.com

A pandemic, it turns out brings out the best in us and also the worst. Recent days have seen a worrying reaction to the news that the Keelings fruit company company flew in 149 Bulgarian workers to pick their strawberries.  A group of three men affiliated with the National Party posted a photograph of themselves on Twitter protesting outside a farm shop for the company with an Irish flag and a banner bearing the words, “Ireland Belongs to the Irish”.  Another Twitter comment read, “@keelingsfruits shouldn’t be allowed operate in this country. They are a disgrace.@LeoVaradkar worm your way out of this one you snake. The country is suffering and you allow this.” There was also a wider reaction in the national media with some commentators criticising the government and the company for  flying in these workers in the first place at a time when the entire country is under lockdown and there is a ban on all unnecessary travel beyond 2 km of where you live.

Many of these protestors claim that they’re simply concerned about the health implications for the workers and for the Irish population and maintain that the company are simply exploiting cheap migrant labour.  Perhaps the point about exploiting migrant labour is true, seasonal work is back-breaking work which pays poorly which might explain the dearth of applications from Irish candidates. However, at a time when unemployment in the country has jumped from an all-time low of 4.8% In January 2020 to 16.5% in March, you’d also wonder why there hasn’t been more applications from Irish candidates, particularly when many of them have lost jobs recently due to the pandemic.  Is it that the wages are simply too low or are Irish people simply “too good” for certain jobs? According to a statement on the Keelings website, the company state that they had “advertised locally over 2 weeks ago and that they had received 27 applications which fell “significantly short” of their labour needs. They go on to state that on the 17th of April, they had received a further 13 applications and that they hoped “to employ as many of these people as possible.”

I contacted Keelings to enquire what the pay for the seasonal agricultural (fruit picking) jobs was and was told the rate of pay was 10.10 per hour. Hmmm….minimum wage. Assuming you work an 8 hour day 5 days a week, that works out at 404.00 euros per week or 1616 euros a month. Presumably that’s before income tax and transportation costs. The Covid-19 Social welfare payment is 350 euros a week or 1400 euros a month and you don’t even have to get out of bed for that. It’s a no-brainer. When it’s more beneficial to rely on state welfare than to actually go out and work for a living, there’s something fundamentally wrong with the economic model. It’s no wonder the company had to “import” labour….

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