Nearly half of all inspections of meat processing plants over recent years detected breaches of employment law to some extent, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment has told an Oireachtas committee.
The department said the issues uncovered included inadequate records, working time, pay and employment permit issues.
The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment said on foot of inspections almost €184,000 in outstanding wages had been recovered.
The department said that between 2015 and 2020 a total of 61 inspections of meat processing plants had been carried out by the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC).
It said that 28 inspections or 46 per cent had detected breaches of employment law to some extent.
The answers were provided by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment to Sinn Féin spokeswoman Louise O’Reilly, who had raised the issue at a recent meeting of the Oireachtas committee on proposed changes to the work permit system.
Ms O’Reilly told the committee on Tuesday the figures produced by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment on foot of her questions were “shocking”.
“The revelation that nearly half of the WRC inspections found breaches of employment law is shocking but not surprising. There is a need to get serious about regulating the meat processing industry and yet there seems to be no appetite for Government to do what is necessary,” she said.
“I shudder to think what these workers are enduring when the inspectors leave and the spotlight shines elsewhere.”
Liam Bernie of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (Ictu) said the figures provided to Ms O'Reilly in relation to the level of breaches of employment law detected would probably represent just the tip of the iceberg.
“In the early 2000s an agreement was reached between Ictu and the Government to have 90 labour inspectors in the WRC. That figure has never been reached and the current number of inspectors in the Workplace Relations Commission is 47. Can you only imagine now what would be uncovered if the Workplace Relations Commission had its full complement of inspectors?”
Dr Kara McGann of the employers’ group Ibec said percentage of employment law breaches that were detected in 46 per cent of inspections of meat plants was a shocking statistic.
She said announced and unannounced inspections should take place to catch such breaches.
The Oireachtas Joint Committee on Enterprise and Employment heard from both Ibec and Ictu on Tuesday as part of a resumed hearing on planned new legislation on work permits..
The proposed reforms would allow, among others, for the introduction of a new seasonal work permit as well as changes to the labour market needs test that applies prior to employers bringing in staff on work permits from abroad.
Ibec maintained that shortages of lower-skilled workers and subsequent pressure on wages had the potential to be as harmful to the Irish economy as a shortage of skilled labour.
However, Ictu argued the Government should not proceed with its planned reforms to legislation governing work permits until the end of the pandemic, when a clearer picture emerged in relation to the number of workers who are unemployed.
Ibec urged the Government to consider special visa arrangements for lower-skilled general operatives, as exist in Canada or New Zealand.
Ictu contended that planned Government reforms seemed to address the needs of employers only and that there were no proposals envisaged “to enhance and protect migrant workers themselves or to ensure that they are guaranteed their employment rights while working here”.