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The Keelings controversy should require us to take a long, hard look at what our economy has become

Keelings employs over 2,000 people. Over the past century it has transformed from being a prosperous north county Dublin family farm which in 1926 began to concentrate on fruit and veg wholesale and export. 

It is now a vast enterprise with branches in 42 countries. One of its successful ventures has been to buy fruit, mainly apples, overseas and export them to China. Its main business in Ireland remains fruit and veg but it is also a significant land holder.

Joe Keeling, one of the family directors, was chairperson of Horse Racing Ireland for a period. That is another lobby which successfully browbeat the Irish government over the holding of race meetings here, and prevented any interference in Irish people travelling, untested on either leg of journey, to Cheltenham. It was a disgraceful example of the elite basically forcing the state to ignore the best interests of the rest of us.

The controversy over the flights bringing in hundreds of Bulgarian fruit pickers, with no testing, exposes a phenomenon, and an ambiguous attitude towards it, that has been there for the past 20 years.

I know a gas welding contractor who had a contract about 15 years ago to install or update the overhead extraction system in Keelings’ massive warehouse at Garristown. He and the chap working with him were the only Irish people he saw in the warehouse during the six weeks or so they were there, and the only Irish people to use the canteen.

Keelings would almost have you believe that no fruit and veg were picked before the importation of migrant workers, many of whom it is claimed are not paid minimum wage and whose short contracts are with an agency rather than with the workers as individuals. When the season is over they are flown home.

Using an agency in this way allows requirements to pay the Irish minimum wage to be circumvented, since EU regulations don’t require that the minimum wage of the country where the work takes place need apply. And just look at the manner in which Keelings circumvented flight restrictions.

North county Dublin farmers, like farmers across the country employed locals, mostly children on school holidays, but also adults who might not have been working, or saw fruit and potato picking as an evening or weekend bonus. The harvest was always taken in as it had been for generations. Many of us will recall picking potatoes when younger; one tough job but thousands did it.

It was beneficial to the growers, pickers and the local economy. Claims that no Irish person would do that work now are absurd. Few Irish people apply for jobs, as Keelings state, but they are not advertising jobs, they are seeking seasonal workers. And that season is exactly the same for them as for overseas workers contracted through agencies.

The reaction to the flying in of workers on the left has been interesting. While TDs like Peadar Tóibín have been unequivocal in their reaction, much of the left is so obsessed with mass immigration it does not know what to say.

Unless you are Louise O’Reilly the Sinn Féin spokesperson on abortion and former union bureaucrat. Her priority is the protection of the migrant workers.

People before Profit call for all workers, Irish and migrants, to “unite in a fighting trade union.” Even by their poor standards, this is infantile fantasy.

Why in the name of Jeebers would agency contracted workers, from a country where fruit pickers and other casual workers are typically on monthly average wage of just over 400 Euro want to join a union during their three months here; never mind go on strike?

So, once again the pandemic has lifted another corner on the reality of the Irish economy and its subservient role vis a vis native capital and the EU.

When it is over, we need to take a long hard look at all of this.



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