DECADES of hard labour have “prematurely aged” vast swathes of Irish men, forcing them out of work and onto benefits, according to a leading Irish charity in Britain.
Lesley Ryan from the London Irish Centre said the construction industry had “a lot to answer for” as new stats revealed the large number of Irish who rely on state handouts because they are unable to work.
Singling out tunnellers in particular, she told The Irish Post that the majority of claimants she works with are labourers forced to claim because of severe injuries and illnesses picked up during their time on sites.
Ms Ryan, who runs the centre’s welfare advice team, said most claimants are single men.
They feel “absolutely humiliated and depressed” when they discover they will never work in construction again because of the toll hard labour has taken on their bodies, she added.
Almost 9,000 Irish-born people are claiming disability benefits in Britain, according to new estimates published by the British Government.
The figures also show that more people from Ireland claim disability benefits in Britain than from any other country except Pakistan.
Referring to a previous Irish Post story about the huge wages being offered to tunnellers on London’s Crossrail sites, Ms Ryan said: “There is a reason they get that kind of money. The work takes such a toll on their health.
“We have had a lot of people, mainly from Connemara and Donegal, involved in the tunnelling industry and by the time they are 51 years of age they have had it.
“They are usually suffering from COPD and spinal injuries. They need hip, knee and other joint replacements. They have osteoarthritis and some of them suffer from asbestosis.”
She added that many who have to claim after being forced from the workforce develop depression because they have no social support network outside of their job.
“This is not the way they envisaged ending up their lives, ending up on benefits after a lifetime of work,” Ms Ryan said.
Her comments have been backed up by two other front-line workers from leading Irish welfare organisations in Britain.
Ant Hanlon from Leeds Irish Health and Homes agreed that heavy manual labour has created “a legacy of ill-health” among the Irish in Britain.
He also said the fact the Irish in Britain are significantly older than other emigrant groups could be a factor behind the high numbers of Irish people claiming disability benefits.
Mr Hanlon added that some have developed long-term illnesses because of bad habits like smoking and drinking to excess.
Meanwhile, Kate Boyle from Irish in Birmingham’s Primary Care Team said the charity often works with people whose disability was caused by their work, but got worse because they did not engage with health services early enough to receive effective treatment.
Although the Government’s figures paint a grim picture of the health of the Irish in Britain, they also suggest that where the Irish are able to work, they are finding jobs.
A total of 3,000 Irish were claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance in February this year, compared to more than 14,500 Polish, over 7,500 Pakistanis and around 7,000 Somalians.
But the high rate of disability benefit claiming puts Ireland sixth when countries are ranked by the number of their nationals claiming working-age benefits in Britain.
There were almost 15,000 Irish people claiming benefits this February.
That compares with 35,000 from Pakistan, around 26,500 from Poland, 22,500 from Somalia, 19,500 from India and more than 16,000 from Bangladesh.