Written Answers. - Employment Rights.

Denis Naughten

Question:

48 Mr. Naughten asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment the number of investigations under the Employment Agency Act, 1971, which have taken place in her Department in the past 12 months; the conclusions drawn from any such investigations; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [6292/01]

Phil Hogan

Question:

72 Mr. Hogan asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment the expected completion date of investigations currently under way by the Labour Inspectorate on the matter of recent reports alleging abuses affecting foreign nursing and hotel sector staff; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [6986/01]

I propose to take Question Nos. 48 and 72 together.

In the context of allegations of certain employment agencies being involved in the abuse of immigrant workers' employment rights, the Labour Inspectorate in my Department has been and continues to be engaged in a range of ongoing investigations, including alleged abuses affecting foreign nursing and hotel sector staff. In the course of its current activities the inspectorate has completed 88 investigations under the terms of the Employment Agency Act, 1971, and it is anticipated that work in this area will continue for several more weeks. Where breaches of the legislation are established, prosecution will follow. However, it would not be appropriate for me, at this time to make any statement which might prejudice the outcome of these investigations. The current restrictions arising from the measures implemented to deal with the foot and mouth crisis are likely to impact on the scope of these activities.

Employment agency activity is monitored and regulated by means of a licensing scheme. Under the terms of the Employment Agency Act, 1971 a person shall not carry on the business of an employment agency except under, and in accordance with, a licence under that Act. In order to qualify for a licence an applicant must satisfy my Department as to compliance with certain conditions. These conditions are designed, in the main, to ensure that only persons who are of good character and who carry on employment agency business from premises which are suitable for that purpose are granted licences. In assessing applications, my Department operates a policy of strict adherence to all of the licensing criteria. In particular, the 1971 Act permits employment agencies to charge placement fees to the employers for whom they source foreign workers but it precludes them from charging such fees to the individual workers concerned.

On the issue of alleged exploitation of foreign nurses and hotel staff, the position is that Irish labour law makes no distinction between the rights of foreign workers and any other workers and, as such, immigrant workers are entitled to the same statutory employment rights and protections as their Irish colleagues. However, abuses of such statutory employment rights and protections have been reported. These abuses typically involve the reneging on the pay terms and other working conditions offered to the immigrant worker before departure from his or her home country. When placed in employment here in Ireland they may then be subjected to excessive working hours, illegal deductions, that is, excessive accommodation fees, non-payment of over time or Sunday or holiday-public holiday pay, etc. Apart from these possible breaches of Irish employment rights legislation, there are issues of contract law at play in these deliberations, together with problems as to jurisdiction. In this regard there are some indications that recruitment fees are being sought at the point of origin.
While investigations continue into alleged abuses of immigrant workers employment rights, my Department is actively pursuing a number of specific initiatives as follows: (a) possibilities for administrative co-operation with regulatory authorities in other countries are being examined as a means to control extortionate fee charging by employment agencies which facilitate the placement of foreign workers in Ireland; (b) a fundamental review of the Employment Agency Act, 1971, is under way to determine the nature and scope of regulatory control appropriate to modern practices in the employment agency business; (c) changes have been approved in the administrative procedures for the issue of work permits so as to better protect the employment rights of the immigrant workers concerned; (d) the Labour Inspectorate business plan for the current year has as a key task a specific and targeted enforcement campaign in employment hiring foreign workers as well as sectors where such workers are employed; (e) the Labour Inspectorate is currently engaged in a systematic investigation of recent reports alleging abuses affecting foreign nursing and hotel-catering sector staff, and relevant employers and employment agencies are being followed in this process with a view to prosecutions; and (f) it is intended that, as soon as is practicable, work permits will be accompanied by an explanatory document setting out the essential elements of Irish employment rights legislation and protections for workers. This material will be presented in various languages.