Gabhaim buíochas na comhdhála leis an gCathaoirleach agus le comhaltaí as ucht seans a thabhairt dúinn labhairt ar an ábhar fíorthábhachtach seo.
Migrants have played and continue to play a key role in the Irish economy since 2004 and before. The issue for unions is what rights migrants have and how those rights can be vindicated. This involves examining the bona fides of the sector seeking the permits and the process whereby minimum wage levels are set and enforced. Unions also have a concern for the maintenance of decent societal values and the promotion of social cohesion.
Job vacancy rates in the Irish private sector are low by international standards. I checked last week and according to the Central Statistics Office, CSO, they range between 0.6% in transportation and storage to 2.1% in professional and scientific services.
In fact, the vacancy rate in professional scientific services has fallen by a percentage point between the first and second quarters of 2019. According to EUROSTAT, the vacancy rate in Ireland was 1% in the second quarter of 2019 compared to a rate of 2.3% in the EU and the euro area in the second quarter of 2019. To put things in perspective, our overall vacancy rate is the fourth lowest in the EU 28. If we take a broader definition of labour supply, known as PLS 2, 3 + 4, as defined by the CSO, we find that the rate is 17% compared to a headline unemployment rate of 5.7%. Taken together with the fact that Ireland has an in-work training rate of 23.3%, which is 9% behind the EU 28 average, it is apparent that there is a mismatch in the Irish labour market which current policies are not addressing and that will not be addressed by migration.
There are a number of downsides to relying on labour migration as a policy instrument. Labour migration will pose additional strains on housing. This would not be the case if greater effort was put into mobilising people already on or beyond the live register. Principle 5 of the review of economic migration policy states the intention that permit holders should be a net contributor to society.
Another downside is contained in the review of migration policy, which highlights "the risk that the development of particular skills in the resident labour pool may be discouraged if it seems attractive on a cost basis for employers to hire non-EEA nationals at salary levels below the [national] average salary".
There is a danger that the demand for more non-EEA visas for low-paid workers will be seen as a stratagem to drive down wages. This perception is not helped by the opaque way in which the wage thresholds for permits, originally set at €30,000 and €60,000 per annum, have been gradually eroded. I refer, for example, to thresholds for recent graduates and customer service roles with non-EEA languages of €27,000 per annum; for meat boners of €27,500 per annum; and for specified agrifood categories of €22,000 per annum. No logic has ever been provided for the erosion of these thresholds.
A significant and uncontroversial part of the Bill involves tidying up existing legislation. One major concern is the effect on the labour market and on society as a whole. Consideration is needed of the consequences of moving decisions from primary legislation into statutory instruments. In practice, that frustrates public scrutiny. In 2018, 42 Acts were passed by the Oireachtas compared with 675 statutory instruments enacted. Administrative convenience should not trump transparency and the right of citizens to be able to follow what is happening in society.
A report published last week by the EU Directorate General for Economic and Financial Affairs, DG ECFIN, pointed out that activity rates and participation rates in Ireland have not recovered as expected in the decade since 2008. The report acknowledges the continuing role of migrants in our workforce but also points to lower participation rates by women. It is important that the work permit regime should not be used as a sticking plaster for other more deep-seated problems such as the participation of women in the labour market or the still low levels of take-up of in-company training.
The role of pre-legislative scrutiny is rather like the role of risk assessment that one would have in the private sector. The members may ask what could possibly go wrong. What could possibly go wrong is the fishery workers fiasco, which was dealt with by a committee of the Houses. It has ended up in the courts. The operation of this scheme is one of the main reasons Ireland has been downgraded from tier 1 to tier 2 in the US State Department's trafficking index. This downgrading brings significant reputational damage to Ireland. That unhappy episode demonstrates the danger that a lead Department could be subject to regulatory capture and could act solely in the interest of employers.
That brings me to my next point. The thresholds for employment permits were originally set at €30,000 and €60,000 in 2006 and are derived from the then average industrial wage of €29,911 for all employees. Since then, those thresholds have remained constant, thus falling behind average industrial earnings, which are currently €38,490. We acknowledge the intention of the Department to realign them with average annual earnings on a phased basis. The link between these threshold levels and average earnings should be enshrined in primary legislation.
It is unacceptable that the current opaque wage-setting mechanism for permits should continue. In all other cases where the institutions of the State set a wage, it is done in public after the interests of employers and workers are heard. That would occur in the case of the Labour Court or the Civil Service Arbitration Board. In contrast, the wage thresholds for employment permits seem to be set internally in the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation in a closed internal process.
With regard to seasonal work visas, the proposal to introduce these visas is fraught with potential difficulty, more so as it would seem the process of designation of sectors would be undertaken within the Department. The difficulties of enforcement multiply and the difficulties for workers to secure redress increase exponentially. Ireland has a larger than average number of young people attending third level who traditionally seek work during the summer months. This should be more than adequate for the needs of highly seasonal employers. As to the argument that we are unique in the EU in not having seasonal work visas, if there is to be an alignment with mainland European standards, it should be part of a widespread review of all aspects of labour standards, including redundancy rights and the right to collective bargaining. It is not acceptable for us to pick out one aspect of the labour code and say that we are out of line on that without looking at other aspects.
The purpose of the trade union movement is to protect the interests of workers in Ireland, regardless of their nationality. Irish and EEA citizens have demonstrably equal rights under the law. The work permit regime allows non-EEA workers these rights de jure. It is questionable whether they are available de facto, especially for lower paid and more vulnerable workers. That is why we have suggested amendments to this legislation. This is best served by having a transparent wage-setting mechanism involving the labour market institutions of the State. The rules have to be calibrated with a view to the regulation of high-risk employer behaviour, in the light of previous experience.
An important aspect that politicians, as opposed to administrators, have to pick up on is the general climate surrounding foreign workers in society and how it fuels other attitudes. The interaction between the labour market and migration needs to be managed carefully to preserve our civic values. We have openness to foreign workers, inspired possibly by our experience as an emigrating nation. We must preserve this value and the best way of doing it is to have regard for the weak and vulnerable in the framing of public policy.
The members will see I have included footnotes at the bottom of my script showing from where I got information. I am happy to answer any questions they might wish to put.