Minister's objection to work permit reform rebuffed by Committee

Labour Affairs Minister of State Dara Calleary has come under pressure to change  the work permit system that leaves migrant workers vulnerable to exploitation. By Christina Finn

A submission to the Oireachtas Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Innovation was made recently by Migrants Rights Centre Ireland (MRCI) calling for the right of migrants to freely change employer. Currently, migrant workers in Ireland are wholly dependent on their employer for work permits and continued legal immigration status. This leaves migrants open to exploitation by employers. In 2010 the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation received 83 applications for new permits, arising out of allegations of mistreatment of migrant workers by their employers. Reports emerged earlier this year of the bullying and mistreatment of domestic workers in Ireland, particularly among the diplomatic community.  

However, Labour Minister Dara Calleary with responsibility for the permit system has said that to allow migrant workers to change employer would alter “a core and crucial element” of the current permit system in that it is “vacancy-driven”. If an employer cannot fill a vacancy from within the European Economic Area, permits are issued to migrants outside the EU. Dara Calleary said it was unfair to allow entry and open up the Irish labour market on the basis that there is an unfilled vacancy and then “take up employment with a different employer where no identifiable labour market shortage has been proven”.

MRCI Director Bill Abom said that Dara Calleary’s arguments “don’t hold up”. "The change [MRCI] is seeking does not require a fundamental policy change and does not undermine the current vacancy driven system," said Mr. Abom. 

Chairman of the Oireachtas Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Innovation, Labour TD Willie Penrose said the cost of leaving an exploitative employer, which falls on the exploited employee, should be examined. For vacancies to be filled by non EU immigrants, would-be employers must carry out a labour needs test. In addition the employer or potential employee must pay between €500 and €1,500 in an application fee.

Mr Penrose also said that a change to the permit system would not result in an increase in the number of permit holders as they would be changing one job for another. 
MRCI welcomed Mr Penrose’s suggestions. The MRCI agreed the fees were a major issue for migrants seeking to change employer, but so were delays in processing permits that was “keeping people in exploitative situations”. While Minister Calleary said the application process takes "around 15 days", Bill Abom said that the application process can take from six to eight weeks. 

“We are simply asking that this process be changed to a simplified notification procedure with the Department during the existing duration of an individual’s permit,” said Mr Abom.

The change would make a “big difference in protecting workers” from unscrupulous employers giving them a chance to find alternative employment, said Mr Abom.
The Oireachtas Committee said that it would make recommendations to the Minister based on the presentations by the MRCI and Minister Calleary. MRCI intends to continue its campaign for migrant worker rights and for these changes to be implemented.