Widespread exploitation of employment agency workers, including a large percentage of immigrants, has prompted leading trade union SIPTU to call a public meeting in Waterford to highlight the problem.

The meeting, scheduled for The Granville Hotel on February 11 (7.30), will also constitute part of a campaign for legislation regulating employment agencies and protecting the rights of workers generally. Public representatives from Waterford and the South East are invited.

SIPTU General President Jack O’Connor has stated that the failure to achieve equality of treatment for agency workers remains a major difficulty for the trade union movement and the absence of legislation to prevent abuse is not only detrimental to those directly affected but also harms all other workers because it facilitates the undermining of standards.

Marie Butler, the union’s Waterford Branch Organiser, accused unscrupulous employers of engaging in “a pincer movement”, with the cooperation of some employment agencies. She maintains they are not only engaged in exploitation of agency workers, but at the same time want to bring down the pay and conditions of existing workers.

While not all employers and agencies were culpable, she said there were rogue employers who did not see workers as people with families and responsibilities, but merely as a unit cost.

She went on to say that all workers were fighting hard to maintain their standards of living within a rising cost economy and they now had to contend with some employers attempting to exploit them and undermine their pay and conditions.

“Workers are not afraid of each other”, she asserted, “but they are troubled by a government which has failed to protect them in the workplace from this type of sharp business practice”.

She cautioned employers who believed that workers would tolerate this to remind themselves of the strength of feeling that brought thousands onto the streets of Waterford in December 2005 in support of the Irish Ferries staff.

Agency workers, she said, should be treated no less favorably in the workplace than other employees. This was the fair and equitable way to treat agency workers and the best way to protect existing pay and conditions. That principle, she said, was well established in the advanced countries of Europe.

She added: “Workers and all fair minded people will want to see this principle of equality of treatment for agency workers enacted in Ireland and to that end SIPTU will campaign until legislation is introduced which ensures equality of treatment, direct employment and full regulation of employment agencies”.

Calling on workers and interested members of the general public to attend the meeting, she said no worker could afford to ignore the warning bells and a strong message needed to be sent to the politicians and social partners that they couldn’t afford to ignore them either.