Employment Permits (Amendment) Bill 2014

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. The Employment Permits (Amendment) Bill is a long-overdue update of the existing Employment Permits Act 2006, which at that time was a reforming Bill. In 2012, the Amjad Hussein v. the Labour Court and Mohammad Younis case unearthed a serious discrepancy in our work permit laws. There was damning evidence of serious exploitation taking place, with Mr. Younis reportedly working seven-day weeks with no holidays and a wage that was well below the minimum and legal levels. However, while Mr. Younis was successful in his compensation claim in theory, because he was not a legally permitted employee, he was unable to sue for compensation. Given the loopholes that exist, there is the potential for exploitation while a person is awaiting a permit.

That is what the Bill sets out to deal with. Mr. Justice Hogan, who spotted the anomaly, referred the legislation back to both Houses of the Oireachtas. The Government made a commitment to draft an amendment to the existing permits legislation. I am happy to see this legislation, which is long overdue and very much welcome, before the House today.

Apart from legislation, it was also becoming clear that we needed rules which were more flexible and able to move with the ever-changing trends in the labour market. As a result of the over-reliance on the construction industry in the past decade, we ended up with a severe skills gap in various sectors of our labour market, most notably the ICT sector. The ICT action plan, which was published this year, was a collaboration between the Departments of Education and Skills and Enterprise, Jobs and Innovation. This plan identified that any future job creation strategy in this country needed to have a strong ICT enterprise base at its core. We are no longer competing in a European market. Ireland is now competing on a global scale and our policies need to reflect that. The action plan predicts that by 2015 we will see a shortage of up 864,000 ICT professionals across Europe, which is a staggering figure. In Ireland, it is predicted that we will see an average increase in demand for high-level ICT skills of around 5% out to 2018. Following on from that, the employment of ICT professionals in Ireland is predicted to rise to just over 91,000, and four out of five vacancies in the ICT sector will be filled by Irish graduates. Meeting the continuing strong domestic demand for ICT professional skills will require an increase in the number of high-quality computing and electronic or electrical engineering graduates.

At the same time, we need to realise that it takes time to nurture these graduates and that in order to remain competitive, we need to enhance the skills pool here through attracting appropriately skilled professionals from across Europe and beyond. I know that this year the Government published its plan to fill 44,500 jobs for ICT professionals by 2018. Part of that figure will be reached through the decision to issue up to 2,000 work permits per year to ICT professionals. This represents a strategic use of work permits and is targeted at continuing inward investment – the maintenance of existing inward investment and attracting further inward investment. I commend the Minister and his Department on the comprehensive work it is doing in this regard. They are unquestionably successful in this sphere.

I was happy to learn that there will be an increased focus on awarding permits to recent Irish emigrant families and EEA nationals as a result of this legislation. Since this Government took office, job creation has been the cornerstone of almost every action we have taken. It has been slightly lost in the very recent narrative over the past few weeks that all of our strategies around the financial adjustments and budgetary constraints were geared at making us competitive so that our people could work again and we could halt emigration. They are not part of some savage plan, as they have been portrayed by some cynical and careless commentators who do not bother to analyse the matter properly. What we had to do by way of very difficult measures and reductions in income, which we did not enjoy doing, was predicated on the need to create jobs and the conditions for job creation. That has been lost in the very recent narrative. Regardless of whether it is lost or not, we are committed to that project and it is the kernel of everything we do. It is only abstract economics until it comes to the question of people working. That is what it is about. It is about making sure that our people would have the dignity of work and that their families would have all the benefits of work in terms of quality of life and everything that goes with it. We are not about anything else. All of the Government’s strategy is predicated upon building a society where people work and where there is equality of opportunity.

This legislation is another clear signal that we are making strides in this regard. Today, we had the announcement that 380 jobs will be created at Ericsson and SAP, benefiting the counties of Athlone, Dublin and Galway. The CSO also released figures that showed there was an annual increase in employment of 2.3%, or 42,700 jobs, in first quarter of 2014, bringing total employment in the country to 1,888,200. This represents 800 jobs per week. I commend the Minister and his Department on this wonderful achievement, given the background to it and given where we were. That is what we are about. We are about putting people into work. That is what this legislation is about as well. Not only does it give an opportunity to people whose skills are indispensable to us; it also ensures that, through their presence, inward investment will be maintained.

I will briefly touch on Part 2 of the Bill, which removes the current loophole that gives little or no protection to exploited employees who are working in this country without a permit but who have taken every step possible to ensure compliance. I have already referred to the Hussein v. Younis case, which was the initial stimulus for this legislation, but, sadly, this case is not an isolated one. The Migrant Rights Centre of Ireland has previously stated that our current work permit system makes it easy for employers to benefit by exploiting their migrant employees and denying them their basic rights. This is due to the fact that migrant workers with a valid work permit must stay with their employer for at least a year before they can change employment and the fact that in order to change they must reapply for a new permit, with the associated high cost. There are also criticisms that the time it takes for a new permit to be processed is inordinately long – sometimes as long as three months, which is an unacceptable length of time to wait. The applicant is not allowed to work while he or she is waiting and, in theory, has no income. What this tends to do is to encourage applicants to seek work without a permit, thus exposing them to other risks. The new legislation will ensure that there is a 58% reduction in the processing time for employment permits and significant improvements in the appeals process, which is a welcome move.

Under section 4, which provides for the insertion of section 2B into the Employment Permits Act 2003, in cases where exploitation exists, the Minister of the day may institute civil proceedings to recoup any monies owing for services rendered. Having the machinery of the State on the side of workers is very empowering and a progressive element of the legislation. This will not only ensure that anybody who enters this State to work will not have their rights exploited in any way, but will also act as a deterrent to further exploitation. All this is in addition to potential criminal prosecution which is already in existence. Employers have a responsibility to all their employees, be they Irish citizens or non-nationals. It is important that there are no doubts about this. One of the things that this legislation seeks to achieve is to make our work permit law more transparent, allowing for no lack of clarity.

Part 3 of the Bill gives us a clearer and more defined legal basis for the different types of permit that will be in operation, and the rules and regulations around how they are granted will also be copper-fastened. It also clearly lists the nine types of permit and the conditions that they can be granted under. The critical skills permit, which replaces the old green card system, will be a key contributor to our overall job creation strategy, ensuring that we as a country remain competitive in attracting inward investment.

As Deputy Kyne said, permits are not thrown around like confetti at a wedding; they are used strategically and with due discretion. The criteria are built in to address economic need, inward investment and skills shortages.

Historically, there was always confusion around the term “green card”, as links were made to the US green card application system, which achieves a different objective from our version. This newly named permit will be an integral part of the overall objective to drive our economy forward by linking the jobs we create to the skills that are needed. The spouse or dependant employment permit will tally well with the new critical skills permit and will ensure that highly skilled permit holders who have a spouse, partner or dependant will look on Ireland as an attractive place to work, given that they will be able to relocate with their families. That is a fundamental right for the family. This can only further increase our competitiveness on the global market.

Section 11 ensures that the fifty-fifty market rule and the labour market needs test applies to all employers who are seeking to hire non-nationals as employees. The balance must be maintained between domestic workers and work permit holders, irrespective of the skills issue. The legislation guarantees that 50% of their workforce must come from within the EEA before companies seek to apply for permits for any future employees. It also provides for a special exemption in specific cases for foreign start-up companies, especially those that arise as a result of FDI. If a company from India or Asia sets up and brings a set of skilled workers, that could be accommodated. Such flexibility is needed to expand the workforce. If this was not provided for, it would lessen our attractiveness and, therefore, I welcome the exemption.

Section 17 states that the Department will refuse to grant a permit to an employer if he or she is not offering employees at least the national minimum wage and normal overtime remuneration. We do not want another Hussein v. Younis case. That is what the legislation is predicated on. It is fundamentally important that we, as a civilised republic and democracy, value and cherish people and ensure non-exploitation. That is a core belief of our society, and even in the worst of times we have not lost that. It is inherent in the legislation, and that is achieved for people during the process of applying for a permit, when they hold a permit and during the renewal process.

This is progressive legislation that is part of the feverish efforts of the Minister and his Department, which have continued apace since the Government took office, to achieve the conditions for job creation, to increase skills sets, to develop a more vibrant economy and to give our young people an opportunity to work here and our emigrants an opportunity to return. I am delighted by the ICT initiatives and I hope our young people will grasp their gigantic potential. They have the ability and flexibility to do that. I believe in a more generalist view of background education. People should not just be educated for one sector. While ICT skills are critical, people need to have general all-round skills as they will need to move a few times in their careers.

I welcome this progressive, reforming legislation. It will be tested in the furnace of reality in the coming months and years.

Senator Joe O'Reilly representing Cavan & Monaghan 2010. | An ExSite website