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Employments Permits Bill will do nothing to address concerns of migrant workers - Ó Caoláin

27 October, 2005


Sinn Féin Dáil leader Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin TD, speaking on the Employments Permits Bill today, has said, “Those of us who wish to see substantive changes that will provide real protection for migrant workers in this State must, unfortunately, continue to wait because they are not provided for in this legislation.” He said, “The Bill does not address one of the issues of greatest concern to migrant workers:  the issue of whether they will be allowed to have their spouses and children with them in the State.” 

Deputy Ó Caoláin said, “Those of us who wish to see substantive changes that will provide real protection for migrant workers in this State must, unfortunately, continue to wait because they are not provided for in this legislation.

“The present system is a two-tier system in which certain categories of migrant workers have considerably greater rights and freedoms than other categories.  This Bill does nothing to change that.   The right to change employer will still belong only to the workers in the top tier.  The workers in the bottom tier will still be bound to their employer.   The Bill indicates the Minister’s intention to retain categories of employment deemed ‘ineligible’ for new work permits.   I am sorry to see this.  I know from the testimony of my constituents that this is causing great difficulty for migrant workers, as it makes it all but impossible for most of them to change jobs.” 

On the issue of the families of immigrant workers he said, “The Bill does not address one of the issues of greatest concern to migrant workers:  the issue of whether they will be allowed to have their spouses and children with them in the State.  The Minister has indicated that the present situation will continue, in which workers must meet a certain income threshold before they can bring their families over.   This is discriminatory and degrading.  Workers on lower incomes are just as entitled to the care and companionship of their families. 

“The Bill also fails to address the issue of employment rights for spouses of work permit holders.   Again, the Minister has indicated that the present situation will continue, in which only the spouses of top tier employees may work without restriction.   This policy is one of the reasons lower tier employees often cannot rise above the income threshold required to have their families with them.  If their spouses were given the same rights as those of top-tier migrant workers – and there is no legitimate reason why they should not be - this problem would far less often arise.” ENDS 

Full speech follows: 

Employment Permits Bill – Second Stage

I welcome this debate.  It is long overdue.  I am sorry it took so long to publish this Bill, which we have been promised in every legislative programme going back as far as the Spring 2003 Session.  I am not sure why it took the Government so long to come up with this Bill, which does little more than put the current regime on a statutory footing.   Those of us who wish to see substantive changes that will provide real protection for migrant workers in this State must, unfortunately, continue to wait because they are not provided for in this legislation.

The present system is a two-tier system in which certain categories of migrant workers have considerably greater rights and freedoms than other categories.  This Bill does nothing to change that.   The right to change employer will still belong only to the workers in the top tier.  The workers in the bottom tier will still be bound to their employer.   The Bill indicates the Minister’s intention to retain categories of employment deemed ‘ineligible’ for new work permits.   I am sorry to see this.  I know from the testimony of my constituents that this is causing great difficulty for migrant workers, as it makes it all but impossible for most of them to change jobs.  I note that the Department’s Expert Group on Future Skills Needs and Forfás has recommended that the ‘ineligible’ designation be abolished.  I hope that the Minister will give that proposal serious consideration.

Under this legislation, only top tier workers will have the right to avail of the new scheme which is being misleadingly referred to as a 'green card' scheme.  This is, of course, nothing like the green card system used in the United States and the Government and media should stop trying to confuse the public by referring to it as such.   In the American system, 'green card' is an informal term for the status which is officially called 'permanent residence'.  It is granted once and it is permanent.  It does not need to be renewed after a few years, as the scheme on offer here will.  The lack of permanence is a real problem for migrant workers.  Many have found it difficult to open bank accounts or take out mortgages because they could not prove to the bank's satisfaction that they would be here in a few years' time.  There is also a psychological factor which should be taken into account.   I have spoken to many immigrants in my constituency who have conveyed to me their sense of insecurity and instability arising from their 'temporary' status.  It is as if there is a voice in the back of their head, constantly reminding them of the uncertainty of their future.   Under this legislation that uncertainty will remain.

The American green card scheme is also not limited to workers in a certain category, or above a certain income level, as this one is.    It is doubtful that many of our own Irish emigrant relations could have qualified if it was.   The Minister stated in his opening remarks that the only eligible occupations will be those in a salary range above the average industrial wage, and that most of the eligible occupations will, in fact, involve salaries of twice the average industrial wage.  This will exclude large numbers of migrant workers.   The implication of such a policy is that workers earning below these levels are expendable, that their contribution to our economy and our society is minimal.  The truth is that we are reliant upon these workers, many of whom are doing jobs that few of us would be willing to do.  

            The Bill does not address one of the issues of greatest concern to migrant workers:  the issue of whether they will be allowed to have their spouses and children with them in the State.  The Minister has indicated that the present situation will continue, in which workers must meet a certain income threshold before they can bring their families over.   This is discriminatory and degrading.  Workers on lower incomes are just as entitled to the care and companionship of their families.  Furthermore, the Migration Policy Institute has identified the absence of provision for family reunification as one of the key factors encouraging illegal immigration.  This policy therefore is also short-sighted.  It will only cause us problems in the long run.

            The Bill also fails to address the issue of employment rights for spouses of work permit holders.   Again, the Minister has indicated that the present situation will continue, in which only the spouses of top tier employees may work without restriction.   This policy is one of the reasons lower tier employees often cannot rise above the income threshold required to have their families with them.  If their spouses were given the same rights as those of top-tier migrant workers – and there is no legitimate reason why they should not be - this problem would far less often arise. 

            And it is not just the spouses of work permit holders who are suffering under the present regime.  I am increasingly hearing of the problems being faced by the non-national spouses of Irish citizens due to restrictions on their employment while their residency application is pending.  I have put in a number of questions on this subject recently to the Minister’s colleague, the Minister for Justice, because I have heard so often of the difficulties it is causing.  At present an application to remain in the State based upon marriage to an Irish citizen is taking sixteen to eighteen months for approval.  During this time the non-national spouse cannot work without a work permit.  Sixteen to eighteen months is a long time for two people to live on one income.  I understand that there are concerns about fraudulent marriages but quite obviously other countries have the same concerns and nonetheless many of these countries, including the US and Britain, allow spouses to work while their applications are being adjudicated.   My latest reply from the Minister for Justice indicates that the large majority of such applications are eventually granted in any case, and the number of fraudulent marriages is small enough to make entirely unjustified the serious difficulty these couples are forced into during that sixteen to eighteen month period.  These spouses should also be able to avail of the relaxed scheme that currently exists for the spouses of highly skilled migrant workers. 

Some aspects of this Bill are welcome.   It is a good thing that the work permit will now be issued directly to the employee, although giving an employee a document is not the same thing as giving them control of their labour.  It is not what we asked for and I believe the Government has acted somewhat cynically in its use of language around this feature.  That said, it is a positive step forward as far as it goes.  It is also a good thing that information on the employee's rights will be included on the permit.  This will make it more difficult for unscrupulous employers, and regrettably there are far too many of them, to exploit and mistreat their workers – at least the ones who can understand English or have access to a translator.  I do not doubt that some exploitation will continue to take place and there is still no sign of adequate measures to deal with it.   It is not enough simply to pass laws without making statutory provision for resources to enforce those laws, and there is no such provision in this legislation.

I hope that the Minister will take some of these points into account at Committee Stage.  I do not want to have to go back to my immigrant constituents when this Bill has passed and say to them 'it took us two and a half years and this is the best we could do'.   I know that we can do much better.

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