Wednesday, 20 April 2005
Dáil Eireann Debate
67. Mr. Morgan asked the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment if, in view of the litany of revelations of exploitation of migrant workers which have come to public attention in recent weeks, legislation will be brought forward to reform the work permits system in order that a work permit may be held by the employee rather than the employer. [12173/05]
Mr. Martin: Most of our labour force requirements can be met from within the European economic area, which comprises the 25 member states, Iceland, Norway, Liechtenstein and Switzerland. A work permit is granted to an employer in respect of a specified employee and job vacancy where the employer can demonstrate that a vacancy cannot be filled from within the EEA. Apart from the renewal of existing permits, which constitute the bulk of applications, new permits are confined to highly skilled and highly paid positions. Current policy is informed by the imperative to address identified labour and skills needs in the economy. To best achieve these ends, work permits are applied and paid for by, and granted to, an employer, which ensures greater traceability, more effective enforcement of employees’ rights and enhanced administrative efficiency. Persons employed in Ireland under the work permit scheme in recent years have been readily facilitated in changing jobs. In such circumstances a new work permit is issued to the person’s new employer. This allows an employee to move to a new employer where there are genuine reasons an employee wishes to leave his or her existing employment.
A new employment permits Bill, which is at the final stages of preparation, will include provision for additional protections for migrant workers. It is intended that employers will be prohibited from deducting from the remuneration of migrant workers any costs associated with their recruitment and the retention by employers of personal documents belonging to migrant workers. The issue of to whom the permit will be granted will be addressed in the Bill.
Mr. Morgan: Does the Minister agree that the current system is designed to disempower migrant workers and facilitate their exploitation by employers or at least has that effect? Does the Minister also agree that a migrant worker, a person in a foreign land who probably has some language difficulties and whose ability to remain here is dependent on the employer who holds his or her work permit, is much more likely to tolerate exploitation or abuse than would an indigenous worker? Does the Minister accept that this is part of the problem and that resolving the issue of who holds the work permit is part of the solution? Does he further accept that if the employee were to hold the permit, it would reduce the almost total dependence on the employer in the first place? Recent revelations that have emerged about Gama Construction, Irish Ferries and a whole host of other employers demonstrate the level of difficulty that exists in this area, and how workers are being exploited.
Mr. Martin: The Deputy is making reasonable points. The key issue in the legislation that is now pending is how we accommodate the Deputy’s concerns in terms of enhancing the empowerment of the employee in the relationship between employer and employee in the context of a work permit. Traceability is an important factor in terms of the protection of an employee. This is something we will probably discuss in the context of the Bill. If an employee holds the work permit, the element of traceability becomes more difficult and one may not become aware of a range of abuses that could be carried out in respect of certain employees.
I accept the point that we must enhance and empower the employee to a much greater extent. We are examining the modality for doing that in the context of the application for work permits. In the proposed legislation it is my intention to give much greater freedom of mobility to employees to go to other employments and to make much greater statutory provision of information in terms of entitlements, salaries and so on.
Mr. Morgan: One of the reasons I have raised this issue on several occasions is to try to have it included in the provisions of the new Bill. Does the Minister accept that if it is not dealt with comprehensively within the Bill, the legislation will be considerably weakened? I look forward with interest to the publication of the Bill and wish it speedy progress. In light of the reticence on the inclusion of a measure to the effect that the employee would hold the work permit, has the Minister or the Department been lobbied by employers’ organisations to try to omit this from the Bill? In terms of the exploitation that exists in this area, we know of a Filipino woman who was employed by Irish Ferries for €1 a day. Will such employers be prosecuted for transgressing on this issue?
Mr. Martin: I look forward to the Deputy’s input to the debate when the legislation comes before the House. I ask him to keep an open mind and take on board all the issues that will be raised. I want to achieve the right solution for employees. I have not been lobbied by any employer or employment body on this aspect of the Bill but submissions may have been received in the two years since the Bill was originally conceived.
Mr. Martin: I assure the Deputy that its publication is imminent. We are examining the issue raised by Deputy Morgan. The key issue is the protection of the employee so that whatever system is introduced, we can pursue cases where workers’ rights have been abused.
Mr. Martin: The labour inspectorate is pursuing a variety of breaches of the labour laws, some of which are high profile cases. The fact that the employer holds the permit has enabled the inspectorate to go quickly to the source of the problem. We do not wish to lose that capacity.
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