Inadequate labour and immigration laws increase exploitation, racism and damage business

Fine Gael Immigration & Integration Spokesman Denis Naughten yesterday called on Government to properly address the exploitation of migrant workers within Ireland. Naughten contends that many migrant workers are being exploited both in relation to pay and working conditions, a situation which is in turn undercutting Irish jobs, fuelling racism and hurting legitimate employers.

The economic recession has forced Ireland to face a new set of immigration policy issues including rising unemployment rates among immigrants and Irish nationals, and strain on the social welfare system, however the current immigration and labour law frameworks are creaking under these new pressures. Last month, reported on the rise in ‘recession racism’, a phenomenon which is being further fuelled by the illegal and exploitative employment practises of certain ‘cowboy’ employers.

A report released by the Migrant Rights Centre in 2008, revealed that more than half of immigrants working in Irish restaurants surveyed earned less than the minimum wage of €8.65 per hour. The report documented cases of migrants being paid as little as €2 per hour and working in excess of 75 hours a week, afraid to object in for fear of losing their jobs.

In recent years, there have been a number of high profile examples of migrant exploitation, particularly in the construction industry. For example, many Turkish construction workers employed by Gama were being paid at little as €2.20 an hour, despite being members of SIPTU. A similar controversy erupted when it emerged that Polish welders and fitters working at the ESB’s Moneypoint Station near Kilrush, Co Clare were being paid less than minimum wage.

In 2005, the International Transport Federation claimed crew members on ships run by Irish Ferries were paid an average of €3.50 an hour and worked an 84-hour week. Filipino woman Salvacion Orge won substantial damages from Irish Ferries after it was made public that she was earning €1 per hour for her work as a beauty therapist on Irish Ferries Rosslare route.

In a 2007 pledge to reduce the exploitation of migrant workers, the government set a target of 90 labour inspectors.  They have failed to reach this target. There are currently 77 labour inspectors and this number is unlikely to increase due to the recruitment embargo in the public service.

Delphine O'Keeffe of the Migrant Rights Centre of Ireland (MRCI) told Politico that organisations such as the MRCI are pointing to the Employment Law Compliance Bill (ELCB), rather than an exclusive focus on increasing inspectors, as a solution to migrant exploitation.  

The Bill would establish the National Employment Rights Authority (NERA) on a statutory basis and strengthen its powers of inspection and enforcement, increase penalties for employment law offences and protect employees who report breaches of employment legislation in good faith.

Frequently such exploitation is not reported by migrant workers because of confusion over immigration law and fear their work permits will be rescinded.  

The dramatic increase in asylum applications in the early 2000s caused the government to focus on the development of asylum systems, largely at the expense of immigration systems, which are inadequate and based on administrative codes rather than legislation.

In August 2009, changes were made to the immigration system in order to improve the situation for newly unemployed migrants.  Prior to August, migrant workers with a work permit who were made redundant had three months within which to find a new job or leave the country.  However, this grace period has now been extended to 6 months for a person who has held an employment permit for less than 5 years.  

Individuals who have held a work permit, and been lawfully employed, for more than 5 years have permission to reside in Ireland and to work without the need for an employment permit for an initial, but renewable, period of one year. 

However, despite the fact that the number of people from outside the EU working in Ireland fell by 41 per cent in 2009, the fractured immigration system is still a significant problem.  

Naughten contends that the failure of the Government to abolish the work permit fee for migrant workers resident in Ireland is costing the economy up to €200 million per year in social welfare and lost tax.

Naughten said: "...the work permit barrier is forcing [migrants] to remain on the live register at an estimated cost of €20,000 per person per year...At present, employers are not prepared to pay the required fees of €500 for a 6 month work permit, and many on the live register do not have the resources to pay the fee either”.

Yesterday Naughten warned: “If employers exploit migrant labour as a means to cut costs at the expense of Irish workers then there is the potential for a racist backlash as unemployment levels continue to increase. The only way that this can be effectively eradicated is by ensuring that the employment inspectorate takes aggressive action by prosecuting the directors of companies that exploit migrant labour in order to undercut Irish jobs”.