Migrants subject to exploitation under work permit system

Ireland's current work permit system is unjust and needs urgent reform, according to the Migrant Rights Centre of Ireland (MRCI).

Speaking at the launch of a new campaign, the deputy director of MRCI, Bill Abom, said that "the restriction of movement [in employment]...is the primary factor in employment exploitation". The MRCI is calling for the reform of the current work permit system in order to allow permit holders to change employers within a particular industry.

MRCI board member Rajat Bhatnagar, who has previously faced employment difficulty because of the permit system, said: "What we are asking for is not wrong, it is only fair. We are asking for good working conditions, we are asking for the right to freedom, we are asking for everyone to have the right to chose their employer."

The campaign launch at Buswell's Hotel in Dublin was attended by approximately 50 people, most of whom were migrant workers. Also in attendance was a representative of the Dublin Council of Trade Unions who pledged union support for the initiative.

To illustrate the problems of the current system, migrant workers shared their experiences of it on behalf of the MRCI. Olga Dubyna, from the Ukraine, became an undocumented worker when her employer failed to reapply for a new work permit when hers expired. She found it very difficult to get back into the system, and described the process as "long, bureaucratic and time consuming".

Julius Bokosi, a chef from South Africa, said that employers "did not want to go through the permit system" because of its time constraints and complications. He said that migrant workers are "a forgotten community" who do not have equal rights.

A short video (below) of a disagreement between a domestic carer and her employers was also played to the assembled crowd. The carer, who was paid €600 a month, was told she would be sent back to her home country "in shackles" if she attempted to seek improved employment conditions elsewhere.

However, despite the existence of such unscrupulous employers, there are many employers that have stated their support of the initiative. According to the MRCI, reforms are in the interest of both employers and the migrant worker community. "We are very confident that compliant employers will stand with us in this campaign," said Bhatnagar. "They are being undermined by the people who are non-compliant...whoever is compliant is a good employer and they should be given that recognition."

A statement released to Politico by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation said that the department already facilitates migrant workers who wish to change employment. "A properly controlled employment permit system requires that permits be issued to a specific employee for a specific job with a specific employer," said the statement.  "To do otherwise would not only risk abuse of the employment permit system but would make it much more difficult to ensure that employers observed the employment rights of employees."

However, that statement contradicts the evidence provided by MRCI which shows that abuse and exploitation of the current work permit system is commonplace.

For Bhatnagar, the argument for reform is a straightforward one. "It's common sense, it's not rocket science. The system that was made in Ireland was flawed in the first place. There definitely needs to be change, and quickly." It remains to be seen, however, whether or not the political will exists to enact such reforms.

The MRCI is currently travelling countrywide to provide information on this new campaign. Check the MRCI website for dates and locations.