Workplace disputes in Ireland are often shelved or fly under the radar from mainstream media coverage. If they are taken on, they are often covered in a malinformed way that intends to vilify the workers and reduce mass support.
Yet the work put into the Iceland Foods Ireland campaign is becoming increasingly unavoidable to cover from when it first emerged in March 2023. It followed the transfer of undertakings that the shops in the south went through.
The Talbot St. store closed suddenly on 25 June once the workers were informed – 20 minutes into their shift – that they were being temporarily laid off. The workers have since taken matters into their own hands with the support of their trade union, the Independent Workers Union.
They have staged an occupation which has amassed critical support, not only internationally, but in the working class areas of Dublin’s city centre where the shop is situated.
We went to speak to the workers on the 20th day of their occupation, to hear their take on the dispute and what this means for them personally, but also on a greater scale for workers’ rights.
The lock-in has lasted 20 days now. How is the morale? How has the reception been to the direct action you have taken?
The reception has been very good and we’ve been shown a lot of support, which motivates us to keep going. We have no intentions to stop as there has been no resolution given to us and it’s something major that drives us on.
What were the conditions before the lock-in like? What drew you to this point?
Well, before the occupation, working for Iceland became increasingly uncomfortable very quickly, especially after the change of ownership. We started dreading work as they started taking the little things away like music privileges, but then that became monitoring how we ate on our breaks and took our smoke breaks.
The temperature control became a mess as well, some days we were forced to work in heat up to 35 degrees, or air conditioning was turned off in a way where we couldn’t even access. It was like we were walking on eggshells for the smallest things.
We then noticed that orders became very little and crucially wages, sick-leave, and holiday pay then became compromised, so they really started cracking down on these micro things at first to then try and squeeze us out with major drawbacks – they just had this motivation to get rid of us all along, no matter what kind of way it was going to be.
The worker-employer communication also became worse after the new ownership took over this year. Not that ownership before was perfect, but at least you knew where you stood and could contact management up the ladder in some regard.
With recent developments though, trying to get any word from management if you had concerns was impossible, yet at the same time the blame was always shifted by management onto the workers for situations we haven’t any involvement in. The top-down communication was the only one that mattered to them, they did not want to hear from the people who work here and keep the shop going on the daily.
Now we’re seeing Ballyfermot call for industrial strike action. Has this brought the staff from other shops closer? Have you noticed any shared experiences?
They’re doing the right thing and we’d say it’s brought us much closer in loads of ways. We have a group chat between us and other Iceland shops to share our experiences. Some of the girls [from Ballyfermot] actually would have worked here as well, so we know them personally.
The fact we have occupied here at Talbot St. has encouraged many of the other shops including them. We are doing this just as much for the principle as for what we are owed..
They have seen reduced hours and management messing around with wages too. Truly what it is is that they do not know when they will close either so they are fighting for the least they deserve.
How has support from the (Independent Workers) Union been?
They have been amazing. Everyone from the IWU who has shown up to help in some way and support has pushed us further, in particular Damien and Alex.
It’s union work alright but it’s not paid work like that at all and they go beyond the hours they need to do to keep us going. Their support has been phenomenal.
Occupation would not have happened, simple as, without everyone putting in a serious shift, including ourselves. So we know that despite it being four of us from the shop, there are many others who’ll fight as they’re with the workers here too.
Naeem Maniar has used cunning tactics in order to stunt your fight for what’s yours, I doubt I could list them all out…
So we’ve never met Naeem, but remotely we know the tactics to push all the Iceland staff out.
From moving managers to different stores, forced leaving of workers, and generally ripping apart the team with the means to remove everyone who’s involved in the shops. There has been no communication from him directly, but he has gone to extremes to mess up our aims.
It just goes to show how sadistic he is to be making fake names to attack us, smear who we are, demoralise us or have a go at union activists. We would’ve never expected us being in this position now and it is what it is – we are doing it for the sake of what we deserve but also the greater cause behind it for Iceland workers.
It has been said that there are false promises made by Maniar on securing your pay, could you elaborate more on them?
He spoke to other shops about pay by physically going into them, and said he would transfer the money over to the staff personally. This was before the first strikes that went on [19th May] and he knew what he was up to.
He was afraid we would show our concerns like this so he made these pleas but then the workers saw nothing. See he has that security yet he hasn’t any regard for people with day-to-day expenses, with kids to feed, or bills to pay, so he couldn’t care less about where we’re at.
What is your foresight on what’s to come for the struggle of the Iceland lock-in?
As it stands we have no intention of ending this occupation. What little staff we have will continue the occupation. We’ve had a lot of encouragement from the IWU who’ve assisted us with this and the people around us who have been so sympathetic as well.
We believe that if we go this long we may as well go the whole way and keep fighting, even beyond what the WRC [Workplace Relations Commission] say which’ll take months anyways. Sure Naeem could even incite an injunction on us but whatever obstacles are coming our way we just need to keep at it.
Alexander Homits, one of the IWU’s organisers on the ground, was vocal about Maneer’s attempts to crack down on their struggle.
“Naeem Maniar, the owner of Iceland, Homesavers, Centz and many other companies is employing some of the sleaziest and most despicable actions I have seen in my time as a trade unionist in the last few years. Dishonest, opaque and deliberately elusive, he is not giving his own business a chance by treating his workers and their union of choice the IWU fairly. The reputation is ruined, the damage is done- the only way out of this situation for the entire business is to show humility and respect for the workers in Iceland, apologise, pay them correctly and guarantee their jobs or enhanced redundancies that would reflect the stress that this situation has put them through.
Now Mr Maniar might turn around and say he can’t afford it- but our records show that he has the means to do so and if he doesn’t then we invite him to open his books and prove otherwise. Until such a time that Mr Maniar resolves the outstanding issues and takes a more constructive approach, union members will be up for the challenge of keeping his antics in check, and their union, the IWU, will be right behind them.”
Jamie Murphy, the IWU General Secretary was also present on the day.
“At the IWU’s recent Annual Delegate Conference, the Union fully reiterated its wholehearted support for the Iceland workers in their struggle against the despicable actions of their employer. We stand behind them the whole way and will continue to give them all the support that we can.”
It is imperative that the working-class, and particularly the youth, display unconditional solidarity with workers who are experiencing dire circumstances in the workplace. Solidarity in the face of the volatility and negligence of private sector businesses who refuse to do the bare minimum for workers’ rights.
This kind of precarity is desired to keep workers invested in their job out of necessity. Many companies like Iceland will deploy such tactics to extract as much work out of their staff for as little pay or expenses on their part as possible.
We see these jobs are increasingly prevalent and that the youth of Ireland are often lasting a shorter timespan in workplaces. The working class of Ireland has been undermined by their employer for too long.
Actions such as this reveal that we are far more capable of getting what we deserve through direct action, rather than playing the waiting game with bureaucratic bodies such as the WRC and HSA. They are designed to delay and deteriorate the momentum workers’ need to achieve success in an effective and urgent manner.
The Connolly Youth Movement expresses its utmost solidarity to the workers within Iceland, and will continue to support their current and future actions that put their best interests first.