Priority Questions. - Abuse of Work Permits.

Charles Flanagan

Question:

31 Mr. Flanagan asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment if her attention has been drawn to the abuse of non-nationals working here on foot of work permits issued from her Department; the action she proposes to take to deal with this matter; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [8090/01]

I am alert to recent reports concerning the treatment of some immigrant workers by a number of unscrupulous Irish employers and employment agencies and in this regard my Department is taking a number of specific initiatives.

The administrative procedures for the issue of work permits have been examined and improved so as to better protect the employment rights of the immigrant workers concerned. From later this month the application will have to be signed by the prospective employees, as confirmation that they are familiar with and accept the terms of the job on offer.

It is also intended that within weeks applications for 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. Possibilities for administrative co-operation with regulatory authorities in other countries are also being examined as a means to control extortionate fee charging by employment agencies which facilitate the placement of foreign workers in Ireland.

A fundamental review of the Employment Agency Act, 1971, is also under way to determine the nature and scope of regulatory control appropriate to modern practices in the employment agency business and the labour inspectorate business plan for the current year has as a key task a specific and targeted enforcement campaign in employments hiring foreign workers as well as sectors where such workers are employed. In addition, the labour inspectorate is currently engaged in a systematic investigation of recent reports alleging abuses affecting foreign nursing and hotel and catering sector staff and implicated employers and employment agencies are being pursued with a view to prosecutions.

I welcome the Tánaiste back from Japan. I am not sure of the effect she had out there but when she left the economy was in turmoil, the stock exchange was in free fall and the Prime Minister said he was going to resign. Maybe she will address the matter in more detail when replying to the next question.

Always positive.

Is the Tánaiste aware of the systematic exploitation of eastern European workers, particularly in the agri-business sector and the outdoor pursuits area? Many workers have come here in good faith and at considerable cost to themselves with regard to travel and insurance. They are promised jobs to which they are indentured as a result of the personal nature of the work permit and many of them work overtime without pay and have to work for weeks with no days off. They do not have a choice because of the personal nature of their green cards and the matter is so urgent that it requires a rapid fire response. The Tánaiste mentioned a strategy in her response but a strategy is only as good as its enforcement. How many field officers make up the inspectorate she mentioned? On average, how many calls does that inspectorate make in one week?

A couple of weeks after I left Japan on my last visit the then Prime Minister resigned but they last for two and a half years on average and the incumbent is approaching his second year.

They have had ten in thirteen years.

How about Tánaistes?

We are lucky in some respects.

I am aware of the problem raised by Deputy Flanagan and am concerned that some individuals working here are not being paid for overtime and weekend work or are being expected to work weekends without remuneration. In other cases excessive fees are being deducted for accommodation. That is why a fairly aggressive campaign is under way from the labour inspectorate. The Minister of State, Deputy Kitt, works more closely in this area but I understand we have 20 inspectors working in this sector. Recently they have been in contact with 100 employment agencies in the State as well as research agencies in this area. A number of prosecutions are pending.

The Deputy will know that our employment rights legislation does not discriminate between Irish nationals and others working in this jurisdiction but on occasion foreign workers, because of the language barrier, are not necessarily aware of their employment rights. That is why we are changing the administrative regime for issuing work permits. Heretofore the application had to be solely made by the prospective employer but we want to ensure the prospective employee is fully aware of his or her rights and we will also ensure that this employment law is issued to each prospective employee in his or her native language. We are beginning with six languages – Russian, Latvian, Czech, Lithuanian, Polish and Chinese – and we hope in time to move on to other languages but most of our applicants come from these areas.

Four main areas are being targeted at present: crèches, the agriculture sector and in particular the mushroom and meat plants, as well as the hotel and catering industries. Priority is being given to target areas where a large number of work permits have been issued and where there have been complaints against particular employers.

The Tánaiste's reply indicates that action is being taken and there is at least a plan of action for the future. One of the difficulties here is that the work permit document is a personal document and that revocation of it will mean the person is no longer an employee. Part of the problem facing these employees is that work permit registration is being used as a vehicle to ensure an oppressive regime can operate. There is a need to free up the personal nature of the work permit or to ensure that a changeover from one employer to another can take place within a time frame that does not give rise to the delays we are seeing at present.

A question, please.

Will the Tánaiste deal with these issues as well as those matters she says her Department is working on?

Deputy Flanagan makes a good deal of sense because clearly a vulnerable person who comes here with a work permit may be under the impression that if he or she makes a complaint he or she will have no alternative but to leave the jurisdiction or that he or she might not find alternative employment. We need to update the 1971 Act, as there are huge difficulties with it, but that is under way. Virtually all these people come to Ireland through employment agencies of one kind or other so we must change the licensing and registration of such agencies.

We must also work with the regulatory authorities of these workers' countries of origin. Recently we had a number of visits from the labour attaché of the Philippines Embassy in London in relation to complaints from citizens of that country who had come to work in Ireland, particularly those working in nursing homes. Clearly we must tighten the legislation on the authorisation and registration of employment agencies while also working with other authorities. We should perhaps look at the arrangements under the working visa arrangement; approximately 2,000 people are here with a working visa which does not tie them to the employer with whom they initially take up employment. We must consider doing something of that nature for areas in the economy where there clearly are shortages.