Plan to regularise status of migrant workers


THE GOVERNMENT is to set up a programme to regularise the status of undocumented migrant workers in Ireland who previously held work permits.

Senior officials told unions and employers at social partnership talks last week that the scheme will be aimed at foreign national workers who have become undocumented through "no fault of their own".

The move appears to be a significant U-turn by the Government, which previously signalled that any such move could provide an incentive for illegal immigration.

At present, work visas and permits are tied to employers and workers can face deportation if they are made redundant, dismissed, or if their permits are not renewed after they expire.

A spokesman for the Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern confirmed that the plan was at an advanced stage and would be introduced as soon as possible.

He played down suggestions that very large numbers of undocumented workers may avail of the scheme and said initial indications were that a limited number of people would benefit.

"It will be a limited scheme to assist those people who are stuck in legal limbo. In essence, it will allow those who previously held work permits to continue working or to regularise their status," the spokesman said.

It is likely the new scheme will be operated by the Department of Justice, with input from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment.

Groups such as the Migrant Rights Centre of Ireland, which have lobbied for such a scheme for a number of years, have welcomed the move. "This is a win-win situation. The only ones who will lose out are employers who wilfully exploit vulnerable migrant workers," said its director, Siobhán O'Donoghue.

The group has documented dozens of cases of workers who were either promised work permits by their employers when they arrived in the country, or whose employers never renewed their permits. Such workers are often left in a legal limbo and are unable to access social welfare, even though they may have been making social insurance contributions in the past.

The Government has faced criticism in the past for lobbying the US government to regularise the status of undocumented workers, while failing to address the issue of undocumented foreign workers in Ireland.

Last year the Department of Justice indicated that any attempt to regularise the status of undocumented workers here would be very problematic.

"Mass regularisation is extremely problematic in that it fails to take account of the merits of the individual case and also acts as a pull factor for future illegal migration," the department said in a statement last year.

A department source said the new programme was merely formalising what is already done on an ad hoc basis. The source said a benign view is taken of undocumented workers who have previously held work permits and made social insurance contributions.

Social partners at talks in Government Buildings last week welcomed the planned move.

A copy of the partnership agreement shows that all sides want the details of the scheme to be finalised with a view to it coming into effect before the commencement of the Immigration, Residence and Protection Bill.

The legalisation is likely to have completed its passage through the Oireachtas before the end of the year.

The partnership agreement also provides details of plans to regulate language courses and programmes of education for foreign students. It will involve the development of a "quality mark" and an inspection regime.