Migration is a global reality that has increasingly become the subject of academic and popular debate. Last week, Migrant Rights Centre Ireland (MRCI) contributed to the discussion by publishing a report analysing Ireland’s labour migration policies and calling for their reform.
MRCI is an Irish NGO that has been recognized with a SOLIDAR Silver Rose Award for its ground-breaking social justice work with migrant workers and their families, including undocumented migrants and victims of forced labour. The report draws on interviews with migrant workers and senior representatives from both governmental and non-governmental agencies, MRCI client records from the past ten years, and academic and policy literature to provide a valuable picture of Ireland’s labour migration system.
The report identifies a number of problems plaguing the system and largely attributes them to a lack of ‘policy or legislative vision’ in the ‘introduction, development and implementation of Ireland’s immigration system.’ Inadequate regulation and oversight as well as the ‘employer-driven’ nature of the employment permit system have left migrant workers vulnerable to exploitation. While EEA and Swiss nationals are allowed to work in Ireland without a permit, those from outside of this region require one, which ties them to a single employer who is given undue power over them. The Irish employment permit system is based on a guest-worker model that fails to address the needs of migrant workers, ongoing demand for migrant labour, and projected labour shortages. For example, family reunification and permanent residency are discretionary rather than statutory rights, rendering Ireland a less attractive destination for non-EEA workers and lowering the quality of life for those already employed there. In addition, since 2004, Ireland has followed a policy against issuing work permits for low-skill occupations. The resulting gap has increasingly been filled by international students and undocumented migrants, who are particularly vulnerable to exploitation in part because they are unable to access the social welfare protections available to EEA workers and employment permit-holders. Furthermore, employers in Ireland are not deterred from engaging in exploitative practices as there is ‘pervasive lack of enforcement’ of judgments against employers, often amounting to ‘tolerated wage-theft’.
Other challenges frequently experienced by migrant workers include barriers to career progression, being ‘trapped’ in low-paid employment, and irregular immigration status. One consequence of these obstacles is widespread employment of migrants in jobs for which they are overqualified, leading to significant underutilisation of existing skills and talent in Ireland. As there is no formal mechanism for evaluating and recognising the skills of foreign workers in Ireland, it is unsurprising that the potential of this population remains largely untapped.
In an effort to curb these problems, MRCI has proposed a ten-point strategy aimed at protecting migrants’ human rights, addressing current and future labour shortages, and bolstering the Irish labour market. Legislative reform is a key part of this strategy, including granting migrant workers legal rights to family reunification and permanent residency, modifying the employment permit system, and implementing an immigration status regularisation scheme. The support and integration of migrants and their families through measures such as increasing access to childcare, education, and healthcare and facilitating labour market engagement of second generation migrants is another strategic theme. In order to combat the deep-seated problem of labour exploitation and its attendant issues, MRCI recommends replacing single employer-based employment permits with occupation- or sector-based permits, comprehensive anti-discrimination programmes, and a diversity and intercultural strategy. Finally, in order to maximize the benefit to the Irish labour market and to individuals’ progression and integration, MRCI’s strategy calls for measures specifically designed to recognize, develop, and activate the skills of migrant workers.
With the 2016 general election looming, there is hope that the incoming government will exercise greater vision than previous governments have with respect to labour migration policy in order to create a dynamic system that promotes both the Irish labour market and migrant workers’ human rights. Now, with MRCI’s strategy as a guide, this has become much more achievable.