Thursday, 24 February 2005
Question 2: To ask the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment if his attention has been drawn to concerns expressed by a number of trade unions regarding alleged abuse of immigrant construction workers; the steps he is taking to ensure that all such workers receive their full entitlements and are covered by all appropriate worker protection laws; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [6381/05]
I am aware of concerns expressed by a number of trade unions regarding alleged abuse of immigrant construction workers, and where such cases were brought to my attention I have asked the labour inspectorate to pursue the matter.
The labour inspectorate of my Department is responsible for monitoring certain employment conditions for all categories of workers in Ireland, including immigrant workers. The inspectorate operates without any differentiation with regard to worker nationality as statutory employment rights and protections apply to immigrant workers in exactly the same manner as they do to native Irish workers. Inspectors pursue allegations of worker mistreatment and when evidence of non-compliance with the relevant employment rights legislation is found, the inspectorate seeks redress for the individuals concerned and, if appropriate, a prosecution is initiated. Employers are required to maintain records in respect of such employees and these records, together with other substantiating evidence, for example, a statement from an employee, provide the essentials of a basis for legal proceedings. Failure on behalf of the employer to maintain adequate records is an offence. I urge anyone who has specific evidence of the mistreatment of workers to furnish all the relevant details and any related materials to the inspectorate with a view to pursuing the matter.
The wages and employment conditions of workers employed in the construction industry are governed by the Registered Employment Agreement (Construction Industry Wages and Conditions of Employment) Variation Order, which is enforced by the labour inspectorate of my Department. In this regard the rate of pay which can be enforced in respect of construction operatives under the terms of the registered employment agreement is €7.36 per hour.
Enforcement of the provisions of a registered employment agreement may also be effected under the Industrial Relations Acts. A trade union, an association of employers or an individual employer may complain to the Labour Court that a particular employer is not complying with a registered employment agreement. If, after investigating a complaint, the court is satisfied the employer is in breach of a registered employment agreement it may by order direct compliance with the agreement. Failure to comply with such an order is an offence punishable by a fine.
Where employers seek work permits to employ non-EEA nationals, the Department requires a statement of the main functions of the job: salary or wages, deductions other than statutory, other benefits and hours to be worked per week. Both the proposed employer and the proposed employee must sign this statement. Work permits are not granted unless there is evidence of intention to comply with minimum wage legislation. Applications for work permit renewals require confirmation that the stated wages have been paid. Form P60 and other sources are used for this.
The most recent and shocking abuse highlighted this week concerned EU nationals who do not require work permits. These are Polish workers who were exploited and paid half the going rate and whose case was highlighted so well and so forcefully in the Irish Examiner this week. Despite receiving threats of legal action for exposing this abuse, why did it require the Irish Examiner and SIPTU to address and resolve this issue instead of the Minister of State's Department or its inspectorate? How can he justify that the labour inspectorate, the body that audits compliance with labour law, carried out 30% fewer inspections last year compared with the previous year? In 2004, 5,160 inspections were carried out and 7,168 in 2003. At a time when a substantial number of additional workers are coming into the economy, fewer inspections and monitoring of conditions are being carried out. Is the Minister of State aware that the Polish Embassy has stated it is inundated with cases of exploitation from Polish workers who are EU citizens? Is he aware that the case for non-EU citizens is even more scandalous, as highlighted in the report of the Migrant Rights Centre, the details of which I know the Minister of State has in front of him.
I met representatives of the Migrant Rights Centre and I am aware of the findings of its reports. I am also aware of the allegations by the Polish workers. To the best of my knowledge, only one complaint has been received in the Department from the Polish Embassy. This was in respect of a company in Wexford. The case was successfully prosecuted in the courts and is under appeal.
The Department encourages workers, by whatever means and which quite often might be by way of embassies, to contact the Department or the labour inspectorate to bring abuses of this nature to the attention of the Department. It is only in circumstances where legislation is broken that the Department is in a position to pursue these cases further. There are difficulties to do with the rates of pay which have not been resolved because a related matter is before the courts. The rate has not been updated since 1998 which is a very considerable time.
The Deputy raised the matter of inspections. During last year there were three factors which militated against the number of inspections. A number of the labour inspectors were promoted and moved elsewhere, some were involved in the Irish Presidency and a number were also involved in a very detailed re-examination of the role and functions of the inspectorate which took some man hours. The number of inspectors has been increased from 17 to 21 recently. I anticipate the number of inspections to be carried out this year will be considerably in excess of last year's and probably in excess of the year before.
The core of the issue is that the Minister of State seems to believe it is everybody else's responsibility to find breaches of the legislation rather than his Department's responsibility to be proactive, to have sufficient inspections carried out and to have sufficient inspectors. Does he accept that is his responsibility and he should not leave it to investigative journalists or to the trade union movement to do his job?
As I have stated, where embassies or others have complaints to make, they should bring them to the attention of the Department or the labour inspectorate. The inspectorate goes to great lengths to pursue cases but it needs to have the evidence to put before the courts to effect successful prosecutions. This requires the co-operation of a large number of people, including the specific employees where necessary, and possibly their representatives.