Posters demanding 'local jobs for local people' miss the point. The problem is the shortage of skilled workers being trained here
Published 10/04/2014 | 09:15
The wording on the posters says it all, really: 'What happened to the agreement on local jobs for local people? All local people want is fairness in employment opportunities. Are foreign workers being employed at the expense of locals?' Some politicians branded the posters as "racist", while Ukip's David McNarry dismissed that claim, yet said that, "500 foreign workers are being employed building oil rigs in Belfast harbour".
Posters like this tell you a number of things. They tell you that a community is changing; they tell you that there is an air of discontent about the consequences and manifestation of that change; and they tell you that some locals genuinely believe that they have been left behind, or marginalised, as change occurs all around them.
It's partly to do with the recession, partly to do with what is perceived as a general undermining of their culture and partly to do with a feeling that republicans have "done better out of the Belfast Agreement than we have".
And matters aren't helped by the fact that most of the unionist parties and loyalist organisations, particularly in east Belfast – PUP, TUV, UUP, DUP, Ukip, UVF and Orange Order – are feeding the sense of abandonment for their own electoral purposes.
The reality, of course, is that east Belfast has changed. At the general election in February 1974, the unionist vote represented almost 85%: in 2010, it was down to 59%.
Three of the four Belfast seats – including East Belfast – are now in non-unionist hands. Unionists no longer have a majority on Belfast City Council. Of the 24 Assembly seats across Belfast, only nine are unionist.
From most parts of east Belfast, you can see the Samson and Goliath cranes, as well as Parliament Buildings: and those sights are a daily reminder to unionists that their world has changed.
So it's no wonder that a section of them is so easily spooked and manipulated. Yet what is the point of complaining about 'foreign workers' getting jobs when there is so much evidence indicating that children – mostly working class from a perceived Protestant background – are at the bottom of most educational performance tables in Belfast? Surely that should be the subject of posters and protest meetings?
And what is the point of the 'foreign workers' posters when it is clear that there aren't enough skilled workers here, anyway?
As John Armstrong, managing director of the Construction Employers Federation, puts it: "In 2007, at the height of the market, we engaged some 87,000 people in Northern Ireland. That has dropped to just under 60,000.
"Lots of people have lost jobs, but a lot of others have gone elsewhere to look for work. Many of the skills we had have gone elsewhere and we also had many migrant workers who have now gone home.
"Over the past few years, the industry has not been training as much as it used to and as it should be doing; and we could cite the lack of apprentices – they are the lifeblood of any industry, but they haven't been taken on."
Peter Cole, involved in the construction industry, makes a similar point about a recent recruitment effort in south Belfast. "Unfortunately, there was a lack of suitable candidates available when we put ourselves out there for jobs in construction. We were surprised.
"The natural thing to do then was to speak to recruiting agencies and they were very quickly able to fill the void with foreign workers. But, as the workload increases and opportunities improve, does the industry here have the capacity to meet the demand?"
The nature of the European Union means that skilled workers are able to go where the opportunities are – even if it is only for a matter of weeks, or months, at a time. It's what many skilled workers from Northern Ireland and Belfast chose to do as the recession kicked in from around 2008.
It's what many students choose to do, too, when they pick a university. It's what increasing numbers of young people are doing, because (as the Belfast Telegraph/LucidTalk poll this week suggests) they believe that it isn't worth staying in Northern Ireland.
Those are the real problems facing this country and anyone who tries to shift the focus to either implicit, or explicit, racism is doing a huge disservice to the unemployed here.
Similarly, anyone who tries to blame "foreign workers" is ignoring two simple facts: many people from Northern Ireland are, themselves, "foreign workers" across the EU and further afield; and without those 'foreign workers' coming here, a number of local businesses and industries would be struggling to either tender for, or complete, contracts.
As I say, Belfast – particularly east and south – is changing. That change is not a bad thing and it certainly shouldn't be seen as a threatening thing for locals.
Yes, there are huge socio/economic/cultural/political/electoral consequences of these changes, but the response shouldn't consist of insularity and wagon-circling.
Posters which demand 'local jobs for local people' won't, in themselves, deliver one new job if there aren't enough skilled workers with a local background. The problem is not 'foreign workers': the problem is a lack of skilled workers brought up and prepared here.
Address that reality, rather than blaming people who are trained for the job and prepared to travel for it.
Alex Kane is a commentator and writer. Follow him on Twitter: @AlexKane221b. Liam Clarke is away