State ‘outlier’ in Europe for absence of seasonal work-permit scheme

Proposed legislation would see non-EEA workers granted temporary permits

Sectors such as fruit picking are seen as the most likely beneficiaries of the proposed new system. Photograph: iStock

Sectors such as fruit picking are seen as the most likely beneficiaries of the proposed new system. Photograph: iStock

 

The Republic is an “outlier” in Europe because it has no system for granting seasonal employment permits for foreign workers in sectors such as fruit picking, according to officials from the Department of Business.

Department officials appeared in front of an Oireachtas committee on Wednesday to scrutinise upcoming proposed legislation that should enable employers, for the first time, to hire seasonal workers from outside the European Economic Area (EEA).

Clare Dunne, assistant secretary of the department, told the committee that foreign workers in seasonal industries will be allowed come here to work each year for periods of about four months, and possibly up to nine months in some cases, before returning home. The permits would be renewable annually.

In response to questions from Fianna Fáil TD Lisa Chambers, Ms Dunne said employers in qualifying sectors who seek to avail of the scheme would have to indicate the wage they intend to pay their seasonal workers, and also how they proposed to help in terms of providing them with accommodation and flights.

Deductions

The department would also want full details of any deductions, such as accommodation, that would be taken off workers’ pay packets at source by employers.

She acknowledged there was a risk that some seasonal workers in low-paid sectors might overstay their visas, but she said that risk was not peculiar to Ireland. Ms Dunne said many of the seasonal roles in sectors such as horticulture were “hard jobs” that Irish locals don’t want to do, leaving employers understaffed.

She said the department had been examining the operation of seasonal work-permit schemes in the UK, New Zealand, Canada, Australia and Japan, as part of the process in drafting the general scheme of the proposed new laws.

“The only other country that I know of that doesn’t have a system of seasonal work permits is Denmark,” said Ms Dunne. “Even when Greece was in the depths of its financial crisis, it needed seasonal workers in some sectors.”

Ms Dunne clarified that it is not intended to give seasonal workers access to the State’s system of social welfare benefits.

Large employers

In response to queries from Sinn Féin Senator Pádraig Mac Lochlainn, Ms Dunne said the department was meeting large employers in relevant sectors such as horticulture.

The Senator asked about the low pay of vulnerable workers in some sectors. Ms Dunne indicated in response that “remuneration would have to be above minimum wage”. She said the department would liaise with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and employers groups on those sort of details.

“We might do something initially on a pilot,” she said.

Fianna Fáil’s Robert Troy raised concerns from the hospitality industry that its employers cannot find chefs and other staff, and he criticised restrictions on hiring those staff from outside the EEA, asking for them to be loosened.

Ms Dunne said the department would listen to any requests from industry but she also asked for “clear evidence” that hospitality employers are unable find staff.

“We’re not the work-permits police,” she said.

A Government review of work-permits law last year first recommended that seasonal visas be introduced to help sectors such as agriculture.