Delegates at Fórsa’s Traveller Equality Network heard that members of the Travelling community feel they have to hide their identity in their workplace because they fear discrimination.
The event, which took place in Sligo last week, included discussions on the need for workplace champions, positive affirmative actions and employment quotas to improve employment opportunities for Travellers in the civil and public services.
Trade union members, community activists and members of the Travelling community heard James O'Leary of Involve say that Ireland's 30,000 members of the Traveller community are a young population, averaging 22.4 years.
Half the Traveller population is under the age of 20.
He outlined the disproportionately high level of unemployment within the community. Only 19.8% of Travellers are in employment, while only 13% complete their second level education.
A safe space
Despite his lifelong activism on racism and anti-discrimination, Fórsa’s head of education Andy Pike said: “I'm part of the problem. My understanding of Traveller issues is very small.
“This is the beginning for Fórsa, bear with us. There is no policy document to dust off and revise. Our starting point is the creation of this safe space, through the union’s equality network,” he said.
Fórsa vice president Margaret Coughlan spoke of her personal experiences getting to know members of the Travelling community, and about the need to break down social barriers.
Margaret and other delegates gave strong support to the creation of workplace initiatives, in particular the need for champions or advocates for Travellers in the workplace.
Bernadette Maughan, a Fórsa member and manager of Sligo Traveller Support Group, spoke about the systematic exclusion of the Travelling community, "There is a blind spot there. We're used to it, it’s always there. This network is a great innovation, but it shows how much still needs to be done."
Bernadette also spoke about the recent attacks on Traveller families in the local area.
In a follow up letter to the head of Sligo County Council, Andy raised the union’s concerns about recent problems experienced by a Traveller family where they were allocated housing from the council, and subsequent vandalism attacks on the house occured. He said the provision of public services like housing should not be influenced by the race or ethnicity of service users.
“Fórsa members working across our public services maintain the highest professional standards when carrying out their duties and we note that the council's decision on allocating accommodation remained in place despite what appear to have been strong representations made by others.
“We commend the council for standing firm on this issue and trust that any attacks or damage to housing allocated to Travellers will be fully investigated,” he said.
Fórsa official Richy Carrothers outlined the union’s experience intervening on discriminatory treatment of Traveller workers at the Leitrim Development Company last year. “We discovered the company had been paying Traveller workers just €5 per hour, significantly less than the statutory minimum wage.
“When they were challenged about this, management raised the hourly rate but cut the hours of affected staff. We discovered serious issues of concern about the treatment of Traveller workers there.
“These were staff employed to advance the work and support for Travellers across Leitrim, and who were treated in the most shameful way by their employer,” he said.
Richy said the issue had been resolved following high-level talks, but the episode served to highlight the enormous work that still needs to be done to ensure that Travellers are not discriminated against in the workplace.