IBEC, unions concerned by immigrant labour scheme


Employers and trade unions have expressed concerns about changes due next month to the main scheme under which foreign workers are recruited into Ireland.

Under the new arrangements, employers will have to show they have made efforts to offer Irish or other European nationals first choice of available jobs before turning to other immigrant labour.

Until now, this legal requirement was only loosely policed by the authorities. However, a spate of job losses this year and a general slowdown in the economy had led to concerns that employers were not trying sufficiently hard to hire Irish people or other Europeans.

From January 2nd, applications for work permits will not be accepted by the Department of Enterprise Trade and Employment unless they are accompanied by a letter from F┴S which shows the employer has made all reasonable efforts to find an Irish or EEA national to fill the vacancy.

The EEA - European Economic Area - comprises the 15 EU member-states as well as Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein. EEA nationals do not need work permits to take up jobs in Ireland. Work permits are issued for periods ranging from one month to one year and can be renewed.

While F┴S and the Department prepare for the new arrangements, the Irish Business Employers' Confederation (IBEC) says it is concerned the tightening up of the regime will lead to more delays in a system which is already operated in a "pretty chaotic way".

"We're finding a system which isn't working very well and we're concerned that the new requirements will exacerbate that," said Ms Jackie Harrison, IBEC's director of social policy.

She said immigrant labour will continue to be required in various sectors and employers remain confused about exactly how the new arrangements will apply. Problems with the current system included delays in getting work permits and difficulties in contacting the Department, she said.

Some businesses, including meat plant operators and market gardeners, have already contacted the Department to inform them that they are unable to recruit Irish or EEA nationals. The Department has indicated it will be flexible in cases where there is clear need for migrant workers.

"We will have to have regard to realities," said a Department official. "There's no question of locking the door; it's tightening the tap."

Under the procedures, employers will be told to contact the F┴S national call centre to register work permit vacancies, which will be posted nationally and through its partner employment offices throughout the EEA.

"The vacancy will be registered and we will ensure that it's consistent with labour law, that it fulfils minimum wage requirements," said Mr Robert Nicholson, project officer of the F┴S employment services unit.

After four weeks, F┴S will write to the Department confirming the number of contacts and referrals made, candidates interviewed and positions offered and accepted, he added.

Until now, F┴S was not strictly required to send such a letter verifying that efforts had been made to recruit Irish or other EEA nationals. Mr Nicholson said if it was felt that an employer was not "genuinely involved in the process," F┴S would suggest this to the Department.

Mr Mike Jennings, SIPTU's regional secretary, said the union had no objection to the Department limiting the number of work permits issued to meet prevailing labour market conditions.

However, he criticised the way work permits are granted to migrants to work for specified employers only. This means the employees are not free to sell their labour on the open market, as they would be under a more general quota-based system.

"Our main concern would be that the changes wouldn't be used by unscrupulous employers to heighten the sense of insecurity of people already with work permits," said Mr Jennings.

"There is a whole sense of insecurity attached to the work permit system anyway, with people sometimes made to feel they are here under sufferance. They are made to feel that if they put their hands up to demand rights they could be sent home."

The Tβnaiste, Ms Harney, has stressed the positions of existing employees under the work permits scheme will not be in jeopardy. Her Department would continue to facilitate the renewal of work permits by employers in respect of existing employees.

The arrangements will not apply to work permits for professional medical personnel or for high-skilled workers in information technology, nursing or construction, who use a separate work visa scheme.

More than 35,000 work permits have been issued this year to date, compared to 18,000 last year. Latvia, the Philippines, Poland and South Africa are among the leading countries of origin of work permit employees.