Thursday, 7 March 2019

Ceisteanna (9)

Clare Daly


9. Deputy Clare Daly asked the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation the steps she has taken to recognise and ensure the rights of seasonal migrant workers through employment legislation. [11077/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (12 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Business)

My favourite Leas-Cheann Comhairle overlooked me. Shocking.

This question relates to the gap in legislative protection for seasonal migrant workers. I am aware that this is not solely the responsibility of the Minister. There is also a role for the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection. We are talking about incredibly vulnerable workers on short-term contracts who come into the country. I am aware from the replies to previous questions that some of the recruitment agencies operating outside the State are exempt from regulations. What are our intentions in that regard?

I thank the Deputy for observing the time limit.

As Deputy Clare Daly pointed out, employment rights are a matter for my colleague the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty. Ireland has a very thorough employment rights framework. All migrant workers in the State, including those who are here on a temporary basis, are afforded, under employment rights legislation, the same employment rights as Irish citizens. Migrant workers from the European Union and the European Economic Area, EEA, do not require an employment permit to work in Ireland. My Department has policy responsibility for the Employment Permits Acts and administers the granting of employment permits to non-EEA nationals to work in the State. Under the Employment Permits Acts, additional protections for non-EEA workers include minimum annual remuneration levels. The original employment permit is issued to the employee. Information on employment rights is on the reverse of the employment permit.

There is no seasonal employment permit for non-EEA workers. The review which was published in September last year set out seven overarching guiding principles that provided a clear framework for the State's employment permit system. Specifically, it provides for a system with the flexibilities required to ensure it will remain supportive of the labour market at all stages of the economic cycle. The review recommended the introduction of a seasonal employment permit. My Department is assessing the options for introducing a permit, guided by best international practice. If introduced and in line with current practice, seasonal non-EEA workers will be covered by employment rights legislation in the same way as other workers. The Workplace Relations Commission's investigative and enforcement powers also apply and work to discourage abuses of the employment permits system. I expect to do something temporary for now.

I believe this is a time bomb. In the next period there will be explosive revelations about the mistreatment of seasonal migrant workers as a consequence of the lack of regulation. These workers are often very vulnerable. The issues that have been highlighted include the use of unregulated agencies; improper and possibly unlawful charges and levies being applied to the workers concerned by employers or agencies acting outside the jurisdiction; workers being enticed from their families and homes based on earnings and contracts, expectations which are not fulfilled when they arrive here; apparent collusion between agencies such as banks, medical providers, accommodation providers and even State services in the provision of national insurance numbers and the inoperability of the joint labour committees for agricultural workers in any meaningful way. These are critically serious issues where there is a legislative gap and need to be attended to. I am concerned about the Minister's belief everything is okay. Everything is not okay and I am sure many Members of this House know what happened in the jurisdiction across the water where there was a significant tragedy before action was taken. The situation is not dissimilar here.

I was about to compliment the Deputy on observing the time limit, but I will not.

The Leas-Cheann Comhairle has to give her leeway after missing out on her.

Traditionally, seasonal workers have mainly been involved in labour intensive industries such as horticulture, the hospitality sector and tourism. Statistics show that they have come from EU member states and do not require a permit. As rightly pointed out, there is an issue with non-EEA workers. There is a demand for seasonal workers, as the Deputy rightly pointed out and the Department has seen first-hand. That is why we are putting interim measures in place to see what we can do within existing regulations. In the longer term we will need new employment permits legislation, a matter with which the Department will deal. We will try to deal with the issue under existing legislation.

The problem is that there is a regular flow of migrant workers, specifically in the agri-food sector, who are tied into accommodation agreements which they have no choice but to enter into. They then find themselves stuck in bad accommodation, with money being deducted from their wages and no way to question the legality of these arrangements. There are serious issues related to the enforcement of regulations, as the Minister indicated to me previously. While agencies registered in Ireland are not permitted to charge employees a recruitment fee, those operating outside the State can and do. I remind the Minister of State that it took a significant tragedy in the United Kingdom when 21 migrant workers died in Morecambe Bay before the law was changed. We need to look urgently at these issues. We are dealing with people who in many instances come from deprived backgrounds, with a low standard of education and poor English language skills. The matter needs urgent attention.

With regard to the employment permits my Departments issues for non-EEA nationals who work in the State, they have protection under the Employment Permits Act under which they are entitled to minimum annual remuneration levels. Information on employment rights is on the reverse side of all permits issued to employees. I acknowledge the issue the Deputy has rightly raised and the example in the United Kingdom. We are working to have these rights for the seasonal workers who come here, particularly from non-EEA countries, and trying to deal with the issue under current legislation. In the longer term we will ensure we will have full legislation in place, given the high demand for seasonal workers.