On Ireland being No1 for business. Tech workers, society, night clubs & cycle lanes


Mainstream media were very excited earlier this week with Forbe's proclaiming the republics "extremely pro-business environment" with of course no critical commentary over what that reality means for the mass of the population who rely on paid labour or social welfare to get by. What lies behind phrases like " low tax burden, investor protection"? Why has there been more investment by US companies since 2008 ( $129.5 billion ) then in the previous 58 years? Should we really be cheering being No1 for attracting corporations?

One quotation is worth singling out from the report to demonstrate how capitalists & workers have opposed interests. Apparently what makes Ireland attractive is that "Nominal wages fell 17% between 2008 and 2011, which helped keep labor costs in check. Unemployment remains stubbornly high—a recent 12.8%—providing companies a large labor pool to pick from."

Low wages & high unemployment, bad for us, good for them. The counter argument to this, one that social democrats in particular are prone to make, is that what is good for society is good for business. This comes in two related forms, the first the observation that if workers are not well paid they can't afford to buy the products that a business produces. Henry Ford is generally credited with the idea that if he paid his workers enough they could afford to buy his cars, it's an extension of that argument. And more recently the Silicon Valley idea that high skilled tech workers want pleasant cities to live in and poverty leading to high crime makes for unpleasant cities. One of the things that is said to attract tech workers to Dublin and other hubs is a reputation for having a vibrant cultural and night life.  It could be argued that perhaps that requires a much larger percentage of the workforce to be reasonably paid enough to go out rather than just the tiny core of highly skilled tech workers.

But Business & Society are two distinct things - low wages are good for an individual business even if low wage societies are also bad for certain types of business collectively. Most average restaurants for instance presumably prefer to be in a city where a large percentage of the population can afford to eat out. But  a software manufacture producing for the global market has no such requirement, low wages are probably good for them as it means not only will their workers be cheaper but those workers will be able to afford a social life on their limited wages because everyone else earns less again. The same argument goes for unemployment, high unemployment is bad for restaurants hoping to get the average person through the door but for export focused corporations it allows them to drive wages & conditions down. And when you are talking of US investment coming in then low wages, unemployment or no cost to pollution are all good for profits as they won't have to carry the costs / downsides but they get the benefits.

Clearly there are extremes when very low wages & massive unemployment etc start to create issues that effect the lifestyle choices that the small percentage of highly skilled workers who have real barginning power can make in a location. South Africa would probably be an example, high rates of inequality are a large part of the reason for the high rate of violent crime. And the high rate of violent crime means that people don't want to move there. But even with such extremes this is often 'solved' though the creation of gated suburbs and 'zero tolerance' policing of the cultural bits of cities in order to displace crime into the poor areas. Both Washington DC and Baltimore are cities where skilled workers are provided with vibrant cultural and night life by using policing to exclude the bulk of those cities populations from certain districts.

Where the concentration of such skilled workers becomes high, and they don't practise solidarity to aid the struggles of other workers who lack their power, it can be a major problem for other workers in the city. A recent New York Times article about the tech boom near San Francisco revealed soaring housing costs were driving many out and that "Resentment simmers, at the fleets of Google buses that ferry workers to the company’s headquarters in Mountain View and back; the code jockeys who crowd elite coffeehouses, heads buried in their laptops; and the sleek black Uber cars that whisk hipsters from bar to bar. Late last month, two tech millionaires opened the Battery, an invitation-only, $2,400-a-year club in an old factory in the financial district, cars lining up for valet parking." 

I'd rather prefer if capitalism was forced to give reasonable wages and high employment in order for profites to be made. But I think the available evidence would suggest the negative effects of low wages and unemployment only starts to become a factor for extremes and can't be relied on as some sort of natural market driven limitation to keep things nice for the majority. And short of those extremes low wages and insecurity in the hospitality sector are part of what gives Dublin a 'vibrant cultural and night life' in the first place. For instance wage theft is rampant is that sector, in particular the practise of getting waiting & even bar staff to work 2 or more days free as a trial which very often doesn't lead to employment. And policing in Dublin is very much based around keeping anti-social crime out of a few quite narrowly defined areas. The 'pubs & clubs' districts of the centre are flooded with cops at night while the near by poor working class communities that suffer considerable anti-social crime are contained rather than patrolled to stop that crime 'spilling over' into the commercial districts. Down at the IFSC they literally built a wall to contain & exclude the surrounding district.

So the 'good things' that attract highly skilled workers can be created in self contained pockets while the rest of the city is neglected. Pretty much all big cities do just that, they have districts for the poor and districts for the rich and both visible and invisible barriers to stop the problems created by poverty spilling over. It's claimed that the Robert Moses, the 20th century master builder of New York, delibretely built bridges on the roads leading to the beaches of Long Island too low to allow the public buses that the poor depended on for transport access.  Racism is cited as his main motivation - it was said he also advised the public pools be kept chilled because he believed this would discourage black people from using them - but race & class intersect in cities across the US and elsewhere.

In Dublin where cycle paths tend to be dangerous jokes steering cyclists into traffic there is one fairly amazing cycle path that runs down the lower part of the Grand Canal. Bicycle lanes are believed to be important by those who want to attract tech workers, Tami Door the president of the Downtown Denver Partnership for instance says of her efforts to attract tech companies "The number one thing they want is bike lanes. Ten years ago we never would have thought that walkability or bike lanes would be economic development tools… we’re working on the creation of a comprehensive protected bike lane plan for downtown"

I turned onto the Grand Canal one in the early summer for the first time on my way to a Gezi park solidarity protest. I was amazed as how superior this lane was to pretty much every other cycle track in the city with not only a properly segregated space free of cars but even bicycle specific traffic lights at junctions. And then it struck me to remember where it was going to. The lane connects the pleasant red brick districts of Portobello, Ranelagh and Rathmines with the Google, Facebook & other corporate HQs at Grand Canal dock. A reminder that the provision of facilities to lure in corporations need not mean such facilities will be used by a large percentage of the population, that rather nice cycle path doesn't continue out to Rialto & Crumlin, you are back dodging the cars coming in from there.

The market is only ever going to provide 'nice things' to those who can afford to pay for them and those whose labour is rare enough that they can demand them. For the rest of us collective organisation is the only thing that can deliver and the conditions that apparently make Ireland idea for corporations make it a hard place to collectively organise the sectors where the most vunerable workers are concentrated.  The fact that the skilled tech sector is almost never unionised makes this problem worse, what organisation workers have in those sectors is fit only to somewhat look after their own pay & conditions, there isn't really any mechanism for them to show solidarity with the city that surrounds them and those who serve them coffee and beer.  

Things were not always that way, twenty years ago for instance the highly skilled and comparatovely well paid workers of Waterfor Crystal were famous for showing solidarity with struggles of other workers all over the island.  To the extent that it was hard to avoid going home with a piece of highly valued glass from any progressive fundraiser you went to.  Cities like Detroit could tell the same stories about the role of auto workers. It was one of the major advantages of the mass factory period when even skilled workers identified as workers in a way that made the realisation of solidarity a more self-evident.  So far Grand Canal dock has yet to reach out, the one hopeful exception being that it was the focus for the Gezi park solidarity protests this summer.

WORDS: Andrew Flood (Follow Andrew on Twitter )