Meet Ireland’s unofficial Covid-19 essential workforce
They fill key roles, minding older people and children, yet are illegal and undocumented
Debra works as a live-in carer in Galway: ‘I tell my grandson in the Philippines I cannot go home because I have no papers’ and he says, ‘There’s lots of paper here. I’ll send you some paper.’ Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy
There’s a hidden line of workers in the Covid-19 crisis. The Migrant Rights Centre Ireland (MRCI) estimates that there are between 15,000 and 17,000 undocumented migrants in Ireland and a recent survey suggests 29 per cent of these people work as carers.
This is essential work. Currently, there are undocumented carers working in nursing homes, cocooning with older people they care for and looking after the children of intensive care nurses and other healthcare workers. There is currently no safe way for them to regularise their status.
Irish politicians are regularly vocal in their support for the undocumented Irish people in the US, but they’ve been slower to help people in a similar situation in Ireland. There is apparently cross-party support for some sort of pathway to residency for the undocumented in Ireland, but whether the new government takes any initiative on this remains to be seen.
Undocumented workers – those outside the work permit system – work in difficult jobs at risk of exploitation by employers and landlords. Many resist seeking necessary medical or Garda help for fear of drawing attention to themselves. The women I speak to for this article are in their 50s and 60s, caring for Irish people in the midst of a pandemic while being in very insecure situations themselves.
Debra is from the Philippines and has been cocooning with her 85-year-old client in that woman’s home in Galway. In the normal course of events she would live in Galway from Monday to Saturday, at which point she would return to her house-share in Dublin for one night.
That all ended on March 16th. She is stoical about this, “We have no choice. For my safety and the safety of the lady I look after. I bring my lady to walk around the garden, but we can’t go out.”
Debra came here on a tourist visa 14 years ago to visit a friend but she stayed to work as a cleaner. Over time she began working as a carer for older people. She started with a doctor in Dublin 4 and then, after he died, went to work for his sister-in-law in Dalkey.
After this woman was diagnosed with dementia and brought to live in a nursing home, the family asked Debra to keep going to help her every day until she died. “Only I could feed her,” she explains.
Debra has two grown-up daughters at home in the Philippines. Her husband died a long time ago so she raised them alone. As an undocumented person, she has been unable to attend their graduations, and one daughter’s wedding, for fear she would be refused re-entry to Ireland. “My grandson says to me [on Skype] ‘Mammy, when will you go home?’ I say, ‘I cannot go home because I have no papers’ and he says, ‘There’s lots of paper here. I’ll send you some paper.’ ”
Debra, like many Irish migrants in the past, sends a lot of her money home. She can earn more as a cleaner and carer in Ireland than she could in her former job as an elementary teacher in the Philippines. “I support the medication of my father. He is 87 and he had a heart problem . . . My niece and my nephew, I pay for their school. Everything here, I send to my family.”
In Dublin she lives with three housemates, two of whom are also undocumented. She has been lucky, she says, to have had kind employers but she knows other undocumented people who have been exploited and mistreated.
She fears getting sick. She fears being a victim of robbery “because you can’t go to the authorities”. She tells me about a time gardaí got onto her bus to arrest someone, and she was so terrified of discovery, sitting upstairs in the bus, that she planned to jump out of the window. “I thought, Maybe this was my last time on a bus, maybe I have to go home tomorrow.”
Debra is 61. She would like some security for her future. She would like to be able to visit her family and then return here. She gets on very well with the woman she looks after. Her client’s family ensure they have food, she says. They visit but have to talk from outside the door.
“They say she looks stronger now than before [I came here]. I really love this kind of work, and the people I work with. It feels like I’m looking after my own mother or father. I don’t feel anxious [about the virus] because I have loads of things to do.
“You just do things to make yourself happy. I dance to music in the kitchen and say, ‘We have nothing to do, Kathleen, but we can dance and that will make us happy.’ And the lady laughs and dances as well.”
Mel works as a live-in childminder for the children of two intensive care nurses working at the coalface of the pandemic. They need to be very careful how they interact with their children for fear of contagion, so having another loving adult in the house to care for them is very important right now.
Mel is 50 and left the Philippines when her son was just 11. She had a retail job, and a qualification in computer engineering, but she knew she could never afford to pay to send her son to university on the money she was earning at home. So her son was raised by his grandmother with a big close-knit family nearby while she worked in Ireland. He’s 25 now. “I was able to put him through a dentistry course. He is already working as a dentist.”
So it worked? “It worked, but it was a sacrifice. I haven’t seen him for half of his life. I wasn’t there for him, for important milestones . . . I don’t really regret it, because I could give him a bright future, but I wasn’t there. I was absent. And that’s heartbreaking.” Later she says, “I don’t even know my son very well now.”
Mel has done a number of different jobs since coming to Ireland. She worked in a creche, which closed during the last the recession. She worked at a dry cleaners. There was no longer a job for her back in the Philippines at this point, she says, so it was important she kept working here.
For undocumented people there’s a constant anxiety. “There’s always the fear of being found out. I don’t want to be sick. I worry about whether I can access medical services. Now during the pandemic we’re being supported by the government, but if there’s no pandemic, am I allowed to go out and claim for medical services?”
Once, when she worked at the dry cleaners, she was held up at knifepoint. Afterwards she and her boss decided it was better not to call the Garda in case it highlighted her undocumented status. “I was scared for a long time afterwards.”
At the outset of the pandemic, Mel’s current employers explained that there was a risk that she might catch the virus from them if they were working every day in the hospital. They said they understood if she didn’t want to stay.
“I thought, ‘This is the time when everything needs to give a bit of contribution and this is a time they need me.’ And I love the kids. I mind them like they are my own. They’re nine and seven and I’ve been with them for seven years.”
Now, in lockdown, she and the children bake and play in the garden. She helps to home-school them, and she has started cooking for their parents. “They’re in danger and they’re working very hard, so I make sure they have something to eat,” she says.
In her spare time, she reads books by Patricia Scanlan and Sebastian Barry and watches devotional videos that she likes on YouTube.
Mel would love to have her status regularised so she could visit her son and lose the sense of ongoing anxiety she feels.
Undocumented people are not a burden, she says. They have, in most cases, been working here for years, taking nothing from the State in return. She knows many skilled undocumented people who would love to apply for new HSE jobs that have suddenly been required to battle against Covid 19.
“Ireland is our second home. I think it benefits from us being here. A lot of undocumented people are already doing essential work and are helping society during this pandemic. We’re helping out to the best of our abilities and doing the best we can.”
Shaleen is 60 and comes from Zimbabwe. She looks after a woman in her 90s, and they are both cocooning in that woman’s house in Dublin with the help of the woman’s family.
“She cannot understand fully what’s going on. She is always asking, ‘Why is no-one coming to see me?’ She cannot understand it fully. I explain that her family would really like to come but they cannot because of this situation.” The family talk to her on the phone, she says, but cannot visit properly.
Twelve years ago, Shaleen came to Ireland to see her younger sister, who worked in Ireland as a physiotherapist and had just had a baby. At the time there was a lot of political upheaval in Zimbabwe. She decided to stay for a while but by the time she felt it was safe to return, her daughter and son had moved to South Africa and there was no home for her to return to. She took up work as a cleaner and a childminder.
She talks about how good her elderly employer has been to her. She started working for her as a cleaner, and her employer would recommend her to other people. Four years ago, when she became more frail, her family asked if Shaleen would be willing to move in to look after her.
“I look after her, but she also looks after me . . . She knows I am undocumented and she says, ‘Thank you very much for being there for me’ . . . And I always say . . .” her voice cracks a little, “ ‘Thank you to you also’ . . . We are good friends.”
Shaleen helps the woman to dress and wash, and she prepares her meals. Before she was cocooned, home help and other family members would come to the house and she could go to meet her sister and her friends. She was very active in a church community and would attend services and meetings there. She prays every day. “It gives me peace,” she says.
She clearly cares deeply for her employer. At one point she gets upset. She modulates her voice to a whisper because she doesn’t want the sound of her crying to be distressing for the older woman in the next room. Shaleen finds telling her story and talking about her children very difficult (“I have wept for them”) but she thinks it’s important that her voice is heard for other undocumented people.
“I can’t go see my children. I cannot be open about anything. I cannot go anywhere. I am on the edges . . . If I am regularised, I can go see my family and then come back and look after the old lady.”
Without papers she fears for her future as a 60-year-old woman with no real home to return to. “I’ve made a life here. I have spent 12 years in the one place . . . I am working and doing my little things here.”
She doesn’t know many people in Zimbabwe any more, she says. “But here I have my sister, I have friends . . . Where am I going to end up?”
For information about MRCI’s campaign for undocumented people, see https://www.mrci.ie/justice-for-the-undocumented/