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Vivian Agwe has posted her CV, listing her qualifications as a welder, on the job site Indeed.
But she’s not too keen to be a welder again, she says. “I don’t think I want to go back to that field.”
Some days, a company gets in touch. Last Tuesday, she got a call. The chats feel like a waste of time though, she says.
“He said, we’ll call you back, but I know he won’t,” says Agwe. He’d been surprised she was a woman, she says.
She became a welder because she wanted to stand out. “I always loved to do something a bit extra. I wanted to do my own thing,” she says.
There hadn’t been many women welders when she trained back in Cameroon. Just a handful did the same course and apprenticeship.
Her family were supportive. On her graduation day, Agwe’s head of department dropped by her home.
He told her family that “he really liked the way I was interested in welding”, she says.
Seeing a customer or a manager is happy with the work, says Agwe, is the best bit.
Caseworkers at the Irish Refugee Council suggested she pursue her former career here in Ireland too.
“They said it was better to keep doing what you were doing before,” she says.
Last September, she got a job at a company in south Dublin. She was the only woman there, she says.
She started with enthusiasm, says Agwe. The job was, after all, her ticket out of direct provision. She has refugee status. The job meant she could afford to rent a room with a friend.
Then in December, her boss sent her a short text. “We, unfortunately, do not have enough suitable work for you going forward, [….] wish you well in the future,” it said.
Agwe didn’t have a contract, she says. But she was told “the job was permanent”, she says.
She and a co-worker had argued, she says. It seemed to her that he never liked her. “In the morning, I greet him. He doesn’t answer,” she says.
A few days before she was dismissed, she had taken a phone call during working hours. That wasn’t allowed, but it was an emergency, she says.
After she took the call and went inside, she says the co-worker confronted her, and they argued.
Agwe says she asked him why “he doesn’t want to see me”. She says: “I said, I think one day, you’ll beat me up”.
The day after the incident was her day off. Agwe texted her boss so he would get her side of the story, she says.
“Sir, I’m sorry about what happened yesterday,” says the text. She goes on to explain about the phone call and how it had made the co-worker upset.
“In short, sir, I don’t know what I did to [him],” it says. Agwe then apologises for not confiding in him earlier, before the situation intensified to a full-blown argument.
Back in Cameroon, where Agwe studied to become a welder about 15 years ago, she had seen co-workers settling things among themselves, she says.
Her boss didn’t respond to her text directly, she says. Just with the text saying there wasn’t work for her.
“In my heart, I know it’s because of what happened,” she says.
Part of her was happy to lose the job, she says. “I was upset, but I was also relieved because of the stress I was having there.”
The company didn’t respond to media queries by email and a phone call asking about what happened.
Agwe thought there would be more women welders in Ireland, she says. But in her course and apprenticeship, she was alone, she says.
More than 90 percent of those working in skilled trades are men, according to Central Statistics Office (CSO) figures from 2016.
While 84 percent of jobs in caring and the leisure industry went to women, CSO figures show. Fewer than 100 women did apprenticeships between 2010 to 2016.
Why are only “2 percent of the total population of apprentices” female? asked then-Fianna Fáil TD Fiona O’Loughlin in the Dáil in 2019.
Ireland was “lagging far behind many other EU countries in terms of the scale and diversity of apprenticeships on offer”, she said.
The number of tradeswomen in Ireland was low, said the Minister of State for Education and Skills at the time, while listing the expansion of apprenticeships into new areas and greater promotion among the measures the government is taking to try to change things.
“I think we should tell girls from an early age that they have these options, right from the very beginning, not from the secondary-school level,” says Polly Donnellan, who was Ireland’s first woman welder.
In 1978, Donnellan, who is from England, hitchhiked around Ireland for six months.
She then went back home and “earned a bit of money”, and returned a year later. That time for good, she says.
She worked in places like the Moneypoint Power Station. Like Agwe, she wanted to do something “different”, she says.
“As a woman, you have to work at least double the rate that the men work, but as a Black woman, it must be even more difficult,” says Donnellan.
The labour market is often hostile to non-white migrants regardless of their gender, studies have shown.
Agwe now lives in direct provision in Moate in Westmeath.
She is registered on a few job-finding sites, she says. “Going for anything”. So she can move back to Dublin, she says.
But she no longer wants to stand out in the same way, to do her own thing.
If given the opportunity, she wants to switch, says Agwe. To do “something in social care”.