Struggles faced by migrant workers are severe

Irish migrant workers on employment visas face a number of problems. These include high levels of exploitation and discrimination as well as difficulty changing employment. By Justin Frewen.

The 2006 Census informs us that 15% of the Irish workforce was comprised of non-Irish nationals from 188 different countries. Although this has certainly declined since the onset of the current recession, a large percentage still remain.

Workers from the EU and EEA (Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Switzerland) are entitled to take up employment in Ireland. Non-EU and EEA migrant workers, on the other hand, must apply for an employment permit to do so.

Employment permit systems are established by states to control immigration. Issuing permits for particular economic sectors where there is a demand for workers which cannot be met due to a domestic shortage of available labour, enables the inflow of migrant workers to be controlled.

The large-scale inflow of migrant workers to Ireland is a recent phenomenon. For most of the 20th century, Ireland was wracked by emigration. Apart from a brief spell in the 1970s, after Ireland joined the EU, it was only in the 1990s that immigration surpassed emigration.

Most migrant workers come from the EU or EEA. As late as 1998, the amount of work permits issued to non-EU or EEA nationals never exceeded 5,000. The number of these visas peaked at just over 47,500 in 2003 and by 2009 had declined to under 8,000. Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment (DETE) figures showed that in 2009 there were approximately 30,000 non-EEA migrant worker employment permit holders in Ireland. One third were employed in services companies, a further fifth in catering and a large proportion of the remainder in the medical, agriculture and industrial sectors.

Irish migrant workers on employment visas face a number of problems. These include high levels of exploitation and discrimination as well as difficulty changing employment.

Exploitation occurs in a number of ways ranging from discrimination in payment and working conditions to the extreme case of forced labour. Poorly regulated sectors with low levels of unionisation, such as domestic work, cleaning, restaurant and hotel work as well as agriculture, have been the worst offenders.

In 1,000 inspections of catering establishments and 142 of hotels in 2008, the National Employment Rights Authority (NERA) identified 73% and 78% rates of infringements of employment law respectively. This rose to 85% in the case of contract cleaning.

The Migrant Rights Centre of Ireland (MRCI), which provides free legal information and an advocacy service for migrant workers, supported over 250 exploited workers in lodging formal complaints. These claims resulted in settlements and awards of some €1.3 million as a result of payment under the minimum wage, non-payment of holidays, excessive work hours and so forth.

Migrant workers also suffer from workplace discrimination. The 2008 ESRI and Equality Authority report on Immigrants at Work revealed that migrant workers were twice as likely as Irish nationals to complain of workplace discrimination. A further 2009 study by the ESRI and Equality Authority Discrimination in Recruitment confirmed these findings. It showed that similarly qualified and skilled migrant workers were less likely to be selected for interview based on their having a non-Irish sounding name on their CV.

Migrant workers are also restricted in changing employer. This makes it extremely difficult for them to challenge employers where they perceive injustice in their treatment. This inability to change employers is frequently cited by migrant workers as the major reason they fail to stand up for their rights. They feel powerless, given their reliance on their employer with respect to their employment permit and legal status.

Although a permit holder can apply to change employer, the conditions for doing so are onerous. Furthermore, while the request is being processed, the applicant must remain unemployed and their prospective employer wait for the outcome of the transfer request.

Reform of the work permit scheme to facilitate change in employment under certain conditions would help migrant workers ensure their employment rights were respected. It would also benefit employers compliant with employment legislation and prevent their being disadvantaged by less scrupulous competitors who are cutting wages and other labour costs unfairly.

It would also help the government save on the administrative expense involved in processing new work permit applications. The transfer of workers between various economic sectors to where the need for their labour is greatest would also be possible. Furthermore, work permit holders who lost their job could assume new employment without having to file an application and potentially relying on unemployment benefits in the meantime.   
Above all, the regulation of the employment permit scheme would still be managed by the Irish state with initial permits still being awarded on the basis of Irish labour market needs.

Migrant workers tend to do worse in times of recession. Where once encouraged to come to Ireland to take up positions considered as dangerous and difficult or where there was a local labour shortage, migrant workers find themselves unwanted and subject to increasing discrimination.

The fact that migrant workers were encouraged to come here and their participation in developing the Irish economy tends to be all too easily forgotten. It is crucial the Irish state and all of us recognise their contribution. We need to break away from regarding migrant workers as a `necessary evil´. They should be treated in an equitable manner and are entitled to the same protection as Irish workers. Just as we would hope that Irish workers are treated in this manner when they are obliged to emigrate for work.


To learn more about the situation of migrant workers in Ireland and what might be done to support them in their struggle for equal rights and treatment, visit the MRCI website. Further information is also available on a public demonstration on Wednesday 2 June in support of the Right to Change Employer at