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Irish construction workers overseas: ‘I’d love to return home, but I simply can’t afford to’

‘Most Irish are in Australia for the same reasons: better working standards and lifestyle. At home, there’s nowhere to live and wages do not match the cost of living’

The only thing pulling Patricia Morrison home to Ireland from London is her family. Such a move means contending with a dearth of rental properties in her native Co Mayo, a lack of local work opportunities and nine-month waiting list for a creche space.

Having spent 11 years working in construction in the UK, Morrison, who has two young children, says she is considering moving to Ireland and commuting to work in London due to a lack of opportunities in her field outside of Dublin.

She has described a planned marketing campaign to entice Irish construction workers based overseas to come home as a “complete and utter waste of money”. The Government is planning to launch the campaign in cities such as London and Sydney, Australia to coax skilled workers to return because the sector here is struggling to find skilled staff.

A recent report for the Department of Higher and Further Education found50,000 construction workers were needed to deliver the Government’s housing and retrofitting targets up to 2030.

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The department is undertaking research to identify the motivations and insights of construction workers who have emigrated, the findings of which will form the basis of the campaign.

It is unclear if the initiative will include any supports for Irish construction workers who do return home. The marketing campaign is part of a €750,000 Government plan to promote careers in construction in Ireland in order to help the State meet its housing targets.

Morrison (35), a project manager, says she moved to London after graduating from the University of Galway in 2013, believing it would be more difficult to swiftly progress her construction career in Ireland as a woman. Aside from being closer to her family, she says there is nothing else enticing her to work in construction in Ireland.

“There is no other reason. We’re moving in with my parents because there isn’t anything to rent in Mayo.”

When she last looked online, Morrison says there was just one property available to rent in Louisburgh, Co Mayo – a one-bed apartment for €750 per month which would not suit her family.

“I’ve spoken to recruiters in Ireland who said I’d walk into a job in Dublin because of my experience in London, but Dublin just isn’t feasible. I couldn’t afford the rent,” she says.

One of her daughters has been on a waiting list for a creche in Co Mayo for the past nine months, alongside 40 other children.

“My partner’s English and he asks me: ‘Why are we going there again?’.”

She is now considering commuting to London for three days a week once her maternity leave is finished and she has settled back in Co Mayo. She says Knock Airport airport is “full” of Irish construction workers leaving for London most Mondays, with a corresponding influx returning on Fridays.

These workers are opting to take jobs there and stay in digs or lodgings on weekdays, she says, as it is a cheaper and easier option than living in or commuting to Dublin.

“There is a huge amount of Irish in construction here [in the UK], it’s unreal,” she says, adding that the majority of new Irish arrivals she has encountered through her career are newly qualified and in search of better pay and opportunities.

Irish construction staff in Australia tell a similar story. “I’ve been out here 16 years and an ad campaign isn’t going to sway me one way or another. All the stuff I’m hearing is about how hard it is when you go back there,” says Damian Ennis, who is living in Sydney.

The 39-year-old says he has heard “horror stories” from friends who have made the move back homewith issues arising around insurance, mortgages and finding somewhere to live.

“The things stopping people from going home are stories from other people who have gone home and regretted it,” he says. “These people want to go back to both sets of parents, they want to live in their town and then they go back and maybe they’re struggling to find a decent job or if they find a job, the quality of life they get for it isn’t close to what they get over here.”

As a design manager, the scale of projects in the pipeline in Ireland has also done little to entice him back since emigrating to Sydney in 2008.

“I’ve worked on $AUS60 billion (€36.5 billion) worth of infrastructure in 10 years,” he says. “The Dublin Metro is not even half that and it’s been talked about for 20 years, that’s the difference.”

Ennis, from Dromcollogher, Co Limerick, worked in Ireland for three years after graduating at the height of the Celtic Tiger when a “silly” amount of work was available. He moved to Australia before the Irish economic crash, intending to stay for just 12 months.

“I don’t think any of us rang home to confirm, but we worked out pretty quickly there was no point checking if there were still jobs for us,” he says.

“If there’s a hole being dug in Sydney, there is a digger with a shamrock on it. If it involves digging holes, putting drainage pipes in the ground or pouring concrete, there’s an Irish guy doing it,” he says, adding that the money paid on-site for skilled staff in Australia is “staggering”.

Paul Lynch (34), who moved to Sydney in 2014, has since tried to move home more than once. When he returned to his native Mullagh, Co Clare in 2016, he found it difficult to settle in Ireland and went back to Australia soon after.

He returned again in July 2022, planning to settle down for good, but a lack of affordable accommodation in the cities where construction work was available, in addition to a lack of opportunities in his field in Co Clare while living with his parents, prompted him to head back to Sydney early last year.

“I’d love to return home, but I simply can’t afford to. Getting a mortgage and the cost of building my own home seems to have become unattainable so I’m not sure what to do,” says Lynch.

He works as an excavator operator for an Irish construction company in Sydney and estimates about 75 per cent of the employees in the firm are Irish. He says a huge number of Irish people have arrived in the city over the past year.

Some 21,525 working holiday visas were granted to Irish citizens from July 2022 to last July, according to the Department of Home Affairs in Australia. It is the highest number issued since 2011/2012, when 25,827 working holiday visas were granted. Since then, 13,000 additional working visas have been granted to “skilled” Irish workers in a variety of construction-related roles.

There is no data on the total number of Irish construction workers abroad. Some 30,500 Irish citizens emigrated in the 12 months to last April, up from 27,600 a year earlier. In the same period, 29,600 Irish citizens returned, up from 28,900 in 2022, according to the latest data from the Central Statistics Office.

“Most Irish are here for the same reasons: better working standards and lifestyle,” Lynch says, adding that it is a “chalk and cheese” comparison.

He believes any campaign to try and convince Irish construction workers to return home, given the current circumstances, would likely be a “waste of money”.

“Everyone knows the situation at home. There’s nowhere to live for construction workers, or people in general for that matter, and wages do not match the cost of living.”

In addition, he believes a certain mentality in the Irish construction industry remains where workers are expected to “do everything and be paid peanuts”.

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