Dáil debates

Thursday, 13 October 2005

Employment Permits Bill 2005: Second Stage (Resumed).


Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

11:00 am

Photo of Pat BreenPat Breen (Clare, Fine Gael)
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Prior to the Private Members' motion, I spoke for a few minutes last night on this important Bill. I was talking of the reversal we have seen and the phenomenon of immigration. We now have net immigration. Some 137,000 migrants now work in Ireland, representing 7% of our labour force. Over the period 2000 to 2005, more than 100,000 people from outside the European Union came to Ireland for employment purposes. This is in addition to the substantial number of EU nationals who have also come here over the past few years. Some 90,000 people applied for PPS numbers since 1 May 2004.

It must therefore be acknowledged that migrant workers have played a vital role in Ireland's economic prosperity. Our future expansion is dependent on the availability of labour force. Forfás recently concluded that 420,000 new workers will be required by 2010 and that apart from immigration, other sources of additional labour are reducing resulting in a requirement for significant immigration levels.

This is particularly relevant taking into consideration Ireland's demographics. Like many European countries, Ireland has an ageing population, a rising dependency ratio, a shrinking indigenous workforce and changing employment and work patterns. This contributes to the context where migrant labour is essential to sustain economic and social development.

Our former party leader John Bruton, now head of the European Commission delegation in Washington, was recently quoted as saying that the economic stagnation of Japan, which does not allow for immigration, contrasts with the dynamism of the US, which has a long history of reaching out to immigrants.

It surprises me that Ministers in the current Government are taking such a cautious approach to this Bill. They are of an age to remember when emigration from Ireland was a serious issue and when the progressive policies of host countries took some of the pressure off Irish dole queues, saving the Exchequer much-needed funds. I remember when I was in primary school. There were 12 or 14 of us in sixth class, of whom some seven or eight went to England. Many of them stayed there working and did very well for themselves. They were received quite well. Some returned home later.

We now see the plight of Irish emigrants in America. Their situation requires some regularisation. Some of the previous speakers, including Deputies Connaughton and Deenihan, raised this issue yesterday. Deputy Connaughton headed a group of Fine Gael Deputies who travelled to the US — as did some Deputies on the Government side — to see if they could help regularise the situation whereby many Irish in the US are living in fear, particularly since 11 September 2001. They cannot return home to family celebrations, weddings and so on. People from my parish have been unable to return for the funerals of their mothers and fathers. I hope the Kennedy-McCain Bill will deal with that issue so that the Irish who live in America can do so in peace.

Given that some members of the present Government, or people related to them, worked in other jurisdictions where work permits were required, it is surprising that a more enlightened approach was not taken in drafting this Bill. The legislation does not allow for a green card system, as mentioned yesterday, although it is being flagged as such. It is far from that. A green card system provides for an economic route to becoming a full citizen of the US. The Bill provides for an open-ended work permit and it is unfortunate that we use the green card reference in the legislation.

We all remember the Minister, Deputy O'Donoghue, when he was the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, using the term "zero tolerance" to describe his approach to crime prevention. Importing such phrases from the US and then stripping them of meaning is not helpful in these situations. I remind the Minister that green cards were promoted by friends of Ireland such as the former US Congressman, Bruce Morrison, who has done so much for the illegal Irish in America and has countered the green card "spin" put on current matters. In June, Bruce Morrison said he did not want to see Ireland using the term "green card" when it means a work permit.

The proposed green card system would be more appropriately termed a red card system because it stops people getting Irish citizenship by putting obstacles in the way. It has been suggested that an apartheid-type system would be introduced in which those earning more than €55,000 would be eligible for this so-called green card. This is a shocking basis on which to differentiate between people. It brings to mind the discredited and shameful passports for investment scheme which only officially ended recently.

There are two schemes — the work permit scheme and the work visa scheme. Under the latter the Government advertises for skilled workers to come here, particularly people in the medical professions. These people can bring their spouses but those on the work permit scheme cannot. Few people in that scheme earn €55,000 per annum or more so this should be addressed. It is not just the amount that is involved, which is far removed from the average industrial wage, but the use of salary scales is dangerous.

I am disappointed with other parts of the Bill and the attempts to regularise the chaotic situation that exists with work permits and work visas. The Bill does not go far enough to provide an equitable system of immigration which gives due rights to immigrants. There is a begrudging attitude towards family life. In some circles, the migrant is seen as an economic quick fix. The Bill should refer to the rights of spouses and of other family members to visit or reside here. The migrant is stripped of all social context in this regard. If the idea is to attract skilled workers into the country to drive the economy and to be an engine for growth, the Bill in its current form will fail. Many of the economic migrant workers will vote with their feet and will probably look elsewhere for work when they feel the chill wind of this Bill.

A huge number of workers will be needed in this country in the next few years. Deputy Hogan said yesterday that the Republic's population is expected to jump from the current level of 4 million to 5.5 million by 2030. Projected births will average 63,300 annually and deaths will average 32,400 leading to an annual increase in population of only 30,900. That is the reason migrant workers will be badly needed. It also appears that workers on higher incomes will have more rights and entitlements while workers on low incomes will continue to find themselves vulnerable. All, however, will find it difficult to have family members join them or to freely move around and search for better employment and greater security of residence.

The allowing of employers to retain control over permit applications is an unwelcome aspect of the Bill, it must be re-examined. A minority of employers will be able to use the annual permit renewal system as a means of controlling the employee. Others will be frustrated with the bureaucracy of annually re-applying for work permits.

Under the Minister's proposals, a worker can ask another employer to seek a permit for him or her. That could not happen previously when the original employer held the permit. However, that employer can seek a reference from the former employer and if the former employer does not like the migrant worker, he can prevent the worker from getting that job. That is worrying too.

The situation can be reversed. Recently, two employers came to me about this issue. One was in the catering sector, where many of the migrant workers are employed. He had an employee who was very good and he was anxious to retain her. He advertised in FÁS and did the usual things in an effort to get the permit. He could not get anybody but the Department refused a permit and, as a result, that migrant worker lost her job. The other situation involved a specialist karate club in my constituency. An expert in karate and martial arts, who was American, could not get a permit because the Department said he was not an expert and told the employer to recruit an expert in this country.

Overall, the legislation is a recipe for a black economy of unregistered migrant workers working illegally, with all the social misery and exploitation this creates. The Minister should be aware that many illegal workers in the State once operated within the permit system before falling foul of it. I am not confident the Bill's provisions will plug the gaps in the existing permit system.

There are provisions in the Bill which are welcome, particularly the protections for migrant workers which prohibit employers from deducting expenses associated with recruitment from the employee's wages and from retaining the personal documents of the employee. The Minister said this will offer greater protection and mobility to the employee. However, the Bill offers no protection in terms of becoming undocumented as a migrant worker in Ireland, with little mobility in accessing employment. The inflexible nature of the current work permit system has constantly been cited as a reason for migrant workers falling out of the system and becoming undocumented.

Much of the Bill is welcome but there are provisions which are short sighted in scope and unrealistic in application. There are no proposals in the Bill as to how penalties will be implemented or enforced. As usual, lip service is paid to this activity but there is nothing on the ground. There are not enough relevant inspectorates. That area is under resourced. The aspiration is not to rock the boat too much.

Yesterday, Deputy Hogan referred to the Polish edition of Newsweek. Poles are EU citizens so their circumstances are different but the magazine reported that Ireland was a living hell for many of them. They arrive here expecting to be able to choose jobs instead of finding themselves sleeping rough and living on charity. According to the Polish Embassy there are approximately 10,000 Poles living here.

On Committee Stage the Minister should take a flexible approach to the concerns raised by the Opposition. Otherwise, whatever merit the Bill has will be lost and it will only be effective in keeping people away from this country or shunting them into the black economy rather than achieving the opposite. I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill and I hope the Minister will deal with the Opposition's concerns on Committee Stage.

Photo of Beverley FlynnBeverley Flynn (Mayo, Independent)
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I am happy to have an opportunity to speak on this legislation. It is probably overdue. Members have been alerted to various incidents involving migrant workers that have occurred over the last year. Many of the improvements I had hoped for with regard to the work permit system have been incorporated into the Bill and I welcome those changes.

I recall the debate that preceded the entry of the ten accession countries into the EU last year. A feature of that debate was how many people would come to Ireland as a result. The Minister said that approximately 90,000 people have come to this country. This is more than I had anticipated but perhaps some of those only came for short-term or holiday periods.

This significant number indicates the need for change in the open door policy given that many jobs are being filled by EU citizens. Migrant workers had filled a need. The total of 48,000 in 2003 had dropped by the end of September 2004 to 20,400, of which only 6,000 were new work permits. This seems to indicate that approximately 15,000 people are operating under the former work permit system. Is it known how many migrant workers are in the country without valid work permits? I presume the Department has a system of registration. It has come to my attention that many people are undocumented and it is important to have this information. The country has a total of 150,000 migrant workers, from over 100 different countries which is 8% of the workforce and it shows that Ireland has become cosmopolitan in its labour force.

I welcome many of the changes proposed in the Bill. It is proposed to upskill the workforce, maximise the potential of the EU and move the Irish economy towards one that is both innovation driven and knowledge-based in the development of a strategic skilled-based immigration policy. I agree with the focus of the Minister's policy which has the job offer as its core rather than a quota or points system which is used in other countries.

The Minister referred in his contribution to the green card system. He proposes that green cards will be issued for an initial period of two years with the possibility of permanent or long-term residence. It is proposed that workers will be allowed bring their spouses and families without delay. What proposals has the Minister for the children of such families who eventually complete their education and may be in their early 20s? Are such children also entitled to permanent residence?

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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Photo of Beverley FlynnBeverley Flynn (Mayo, Independent)
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I am grateful for the Minister's clarification. This anomaly has arisen in a number of cases where migrant workers have been resident in the country for a number of years and where a child of such a worker having completed third-level education on a student visa has found himself or herself in a form of limbo.

I am familiar with the work permit system because I have had occasion to purchase a work permit, the current cost of which is €500. The Minister proposes a new system of issuing permits for two or three years at a cost of €1,000 or €1,500. Why is it necessary to increase the cost?

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I am not increasing the cost.

Photo of Beverley FlynnBeverley Flynn (Mayo, Independent)
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The Bill proposes to grant work permits for a two year period at the same fee of €500 per year, which is €1,000 for two years and €1,500 for three years. Why is it not a once-off administration cost?

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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Is the Deputy of the view it should be reduced? It would be the same cost as it is currently.

Photo of Beverley FlynnBeverley Flynn (Mayo, Independent)
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The purchase of a work permit is an expensive cost for many employers and they may also be required to purchase visas on a six-monthly basis, which is another €100. I question the need for multiplying the cost and it could be perceived as a money racket. I appreciate the administrative work must be done but I argue the same amount of work is involved in granting a permit for two or three years as for one year.

I welcome the proposals for the protection of migrant workers. County Mayo has a non-national population of Latvians, Filipinos and many Polish workers from the EU. It has come to my attention through my constituency work that some of these workers have not been content in their employment. The existing work permit system is a form of being sold into slavery because the worker is tied to one employer and cannot move. I am aware of cases where workers have found another job but with the consent of the employer and where they were granted a new work permit with a new employer. However, if relations between an employer and an employee are hostile, this solution cannot be achieved. Many people as a result left their jobs and have remained in the country as undocumented persons. This is the reason for my question as to the statistics available on those numbers.

I stress the importance of informing newly arrived migrant workers of their rights regarding the minimum wage and the work they have been permitted to undertake. The proposal to include such information on the work permit is to be welcomed. The Bill will prohibit employers from deducting expenses associated with recruitment and remuneration and from retaining documentation. I regard the practice of the retention of documents, such as a passport, by the employer as quite disgusting. Under the current system a work permit is issued to the employer. The Bill proposes that the work permit will be held by the employee with a copy provided to the employer and this is to be welcomed. Some migrant workers are better informed than others as to their rights. However, the existence of a network of information within national communities allows workers to become well informed.

Several television programmes, such as "Prime Time", have highlighted the mistreatment of migrant workers. I welcome the Minister's proposal to improve the inspectorate in order to tackle the mistreatment of workers. It is to be hoped there will be sufficient inspectors to carry out this work. Unless some penalties are attached to abuse of the legislation it will continue.

I refer to section 19(4) which deals with renewals of work permits. It states that in an application for renewal of a permit for a person who has been working here for five years or more, the period for which the permit may be renewed on foot of that application may be unlimited. If a person is here for more than five years, is it the Minister's intention to grant them a permanent work permit and full residency status?

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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Photo of Beverley FlynnBeverley Flynn (Mayo, Independent)
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They will have an automatic entitlement, assuming they fulfil all the criteria and this is to be welcomed. If a person has worked satisfactorily here for five years, it would be desirable for them to be granted leave to remain on a permanent basis. I am grateful for the Minister's clarification as I have been asked this question by migrant workers. I welcome the Bill.

Photo of Gerard MurphyGerard Murphy (Cork North West, Fine Gael)
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I welcome the provisions of the Employment Permits Bill 2005 as they are long overdue. While many of the provisions are welcome, the Fine Gael view is that the Bill does not go far enough.

The Bill and the publicity it has received is totally misleading. Headlines such as "Immigrant workers to get work permits" are misleading. The reality is they will get a copy of the work permit which the employer has received, which is a long way from a situation where the migrant worker has the right to apply for his or her own permit.

The issue here is the ability to transfer from one employer to another but, to a large extent, the employer is still in control. This must be understood in the context of non-English speaking immigrant workers in a strange country where the customs and institutions are an unknown quantity. Even if their rights are clearly spelled out to them in their native language, if they leave the employer who holds their permit, their lack of understanding of the system and the lack of a complaints or appeal structure will ensure that they are afraid to exercise those rights. Unscrupulous employers will continue to abuse migrant workers, even if we have ten times the current number of inspectors. Many migrant workers, even though they are being grossly exploited by our standards, prefer not to rock the boat because no matter how badly paid or treated they are, they will still consider it better than being deported from this country.

Work permits are issued on a one-year basis only and it is the employer who must apply for a renewal. We have all heard of migrant workers being told by their employers that an application for renewal had been made, only to discover some months later that this was not the case. Then the workers had to either work illegally in this country or return home.

If the Minister insists on continuing to tie the permit to employers, then he must put some obligations on them to formally notify immigrant workers, at least three months before the expiry of the permit, of their intentions regarding the application for renewal. There should be an obligation on employers to honour a commitment made in writing on their intention to apply for another permit. If employers fail to honour this commitment, they should be forced to pay compensation.

One of the flaws of the Bill before us is that it is not clear what penalties will be imposed on employers if they do not comply with the regulations. We cannot have a situation where, in the last few days of his or her first year here, the immigrant worker suddenly discovers that the employer has not re-applied for a permit. Most migrant workers have arrived from poorer countries and many of them send much of their earnings home to support their families. Therefore, it is not acceptable that unscrupulous employers could leave them high and dry, without any notice. In such circumstances, it is absolutely essential that the employer be held responsible.

If the permits remain in the control of the employer then this Bill must impose stringent obligations and penalties for failure to honour obligations. When we, as a country, make efforts to improve the lot of our undocumented citizens in the United States or Australia, we would not and, indeed, should not accept this type of indentured work for our people. Yet, for some reason, we are quite happy to impose restrictions on migrant workers coming to this country.

Despite all of the debate about the employer's control of the work permit and the long list of injustices such a system has caused, the Minister still persists with this system in this Bill. I hope he has some extremely good reasons for doing so or else that he will reconsider the situation on Committee Stage and accept some amendments to change the system. Some measures in the Bill might prevent the excessive exploitation of workers that we have seen to date but there is no doubt that exploitation will continue as long as the employer controls the permit.

Everyone agrees that migrant workers have contributed immensely to our economy in recent years and most economists predict that, with projected growth rates of between 4% and 5% in the coming years, we will continue to need more migrant workers to sustain our economy. The fact that the work permit is held by the employer is one of the biggest problems facing migrant workers. The next most serious problem for them is their inability to obtain permission to bring their immediate families here to live with them. Repeatedly, they are asked to prove that they are economically capable of looking after their families. Some have, through sheer hard work, saved up to €20,000 but are still told by the authorities here that they do not satisfy the criteria and will not get permission to bring their families here to live with them. I have heard of many such cases in my constituency. It has been a nightmare for some heads of households trying to bring their families here. They have had to apply many times before succeeding. There did not seem to be any definite criteria or any fixed amount of money required to be on deposit in their bank accounts and the granting of permission seemed to be totally at the whim of some official.

This situation makes no sense. Allowing good, hardworking people to have their families with them would be of benefit to this country. It would add to the stability of the workers' lives and help them to integrate more into our society. We must accept that if we allow migrant workers into this country for our own selfish reasons — to sustain and expand our economy — we must also extend to them the most basic of human rights. They must have the right to move from employer to employer and, above all, the right to live with their families.

We must change our attitude towards workers and also towards visitors from the countries where the migrant workers originate. We must accept that their families will move and live here, their children will become part of our society and their extended families and friends will come to visit them. Most public representatives in this House have heard horrendous stories of people arriving at airports to visit family members who are living legally in this country, who are married to Irish people and who have children by Irish citizens being embarrassed and humiliated at airports and, at times, refused entry.

The Minister is producing a guide to rights in eight or ten languages, which gives us a clear indication of the countries of origin of the majority of migrant workers. There should be a review of our embassy structures in these countries. Facilities should be put in place in each embassy to vet and issue visiting or holiday visas to the extended families and friends of migrant workers living here. Of course, controls are necessary but having a visa process in place in the country of origin will ensure that only genuine holiday makers, visitors, friends and families of migrant workers will arrive at our airports. With proper documentation obtained from Irish embassies in the country of origin, there should be no confusion for people arriving on this island. They should receive the traditional Irish welcome, not an interrogation at their point of arrival. This should be done not only because it is the right thing to do, but also because it will benefit us in the long term. Many of these countries, as has happened in Ireland, will improve economically and then we will be glad of their custom and their trade. We must also accept that when we invite workers into this country, just as our own experience in the US, England and Australia, many families will remain. While, like us, they will be proud of their ethnic background they, and particularly their children and grandchildren, will become every bit as Irish as the Irish themselves. They will become involved in our culture and sports. Just as the Irish integrated into society in England and the US, migrant workers and their families will become part and parcel of our society. Given our history, it is difficult to understand how so many Irish people are finding the whole concept difficult to grapple with. Perhaps over the past 50 years, those who remained in Ireland and were not forced to emigrate were the lucky ones. Yet, we should all know from our parishes and local areas, whole communities that set up in places like Boston, Chicago, New York, London and Sydney.

Of course, a balance must be kept, and I am sure the Bill will help to achieve this. It is only natural for Irish workers to feel some insecurity when they see actions like those taken by Irish Ferries. They know that in recent years unscrupulous employers exploited migrant workers and forced a situation that, if left unchecked, would eventually lead to a downward trend in general wages in the country.

In this regard the Bill is absolutely essential. Not only must it protect the rights of migrant workers, it must instil confidence in Irish people that the immigration process is being controlled in a way that will benefit the economy and not undermine the job prospects of Irish people. This is why enforcement is so important. The Bill itself will be useless if it is not enforced properly. There must be inspectors to ensure the rights of immigrant workers and to track down and prosecute unscrupulous employers. There must be constant monitoring by the Minister and his Department to ensure quotas are kept at a level in each sector that guarantees the continued expansion of the economy without infringing on the job prospects of Irish people. This may be where the real problem will arise. At this stage, the electorate has little confidence in the Government to get anything right. It has justifiably gained the reputation of continually passing laws without putting in place any resources to ensure their implementation.

Our country and economy need migrant workers to survive and grow. The system must be fair and attractive to these workers, yet it must be controlled. In order to do so, we must face up to the residency problem. We must accept that after a certain number of years working and contributing to our economy, workers and their families must get permanent rights of residency. Without attractive conditions, we will not attract the calibre of worker the economy needs. Almost every other country in the world has a system of naturalisation after a certain period. It is time for us to face up to this issue and include it in the Bill.

The green card system allows individuals to apply for their own work permit and choose their employer. Immigrants that fall into this category have served us extremely well over the years, particularly in the medical profession, including doctors, nurses and paramedics. Many of our county and smaller hospitals could not operate or exist without their presence. We are experiencing skills shortages in a wider range of professions and we desperately need to attract these professionals. However, we are still at a disadvantage, even with this Bill, as there is no clear route for these people to immediately bring their families to live with them here. This is not the case in other countries with which we are competing for these skills. There is a need to deal with this issue now or it will not matter how many green cards the Minister is prepared to issue, as there will not be enough people to take them up if the conditions are not suitable and acceptable to these workers and their families.

I remind the Minister that, apart from migrant workers and green card holders, we have a serious problem to deal with. Since the expansion of the European Union, many thousands of eastern Europeans have legally, and without restriction, become part of our workforce, and rightly so. Each Member knows of far too many cases of exploitation of these workers. Serious concerns were raised recently by the Polish authorities about the treatment of their citizens in this country. The same pertains to citizens of many other countries that are now part of the European Union. We have an obligation as fellow Europeans to protect their rights and to ensure their stay in this country is of the same standard we would expect if we travelled to other European countries.

While accepting that all of this is relatively new to us as a nation, there is no excuse for the behaviour of some of our institutions and citizens. The Government across all Departments has a huge job to do in the first instance to educate Irish people on this new phenomenon and to put structures in place in housing, education and integration policies to ensure that, as a nation, we do not fall into the same trap as other nations. We want integration, not ghettoisation. If the Government does not act now on the broader social implications of this inward migration, the cost to us as a nation will be enormous in the years to come. We can deal better with the issue than other countries. We can learn from their mistakes and create a prosperous united country, where everyone can do extremely well.

As our spokesman, Deputy Hogan, said, Fine Gael broadly welcomes the Second Stage of the Bill. We will table some substantial amendments on Committee Stage and look forward to debating them with the Minister.

Photo of Mary UptonMary Upton (Dublin South Central, Labour)
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I wish to share time with Deputy Gilmore.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. I have no doubt the role of migrant workers has been widely acknowledged and credited as having had a significant input into the maintenance of our economic boom, which is welcomed by everyone. It is important now to ensure that these migrant workers are given every opportunity to lead a quality of life that we would expect in a similar environment if we were on the other side of the coin.

I broadly welcome the Bill which goes some distance towards improving conditions and setting out standards. However, there are a number of issues I would like to raise. We should look on our migrant workers, not just as economic units and contributors to the workforce, but primarily in terms of their rights and how they may be integrated into our community and society because of the major contribution they are making to our economic boom. We should also consider the rights of these workers' families. My colleague, Deputy Michael D. Higgins, referred to this yesterday when he stated:

. . . the fundamental principle is the one with which I began, namely that we talk about workers, their families and their rights, internationally. The discussion should be grounded and founded in rights. That is what is contained in the United Nations International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.

This is fundamental to how we behave as a society in treating migrant workers and acknowledging their contribution to the economy.

The role of migrant workers in Ireland is widely recognised and applauded by all of us. Tremendous work is done by foreign nurses, particularly Filipinos. They are superb and have provided an excellent, quality service in many hospitals. I have had personal reasons to be very much aware of this in the past year. However, they feel their rights, particularly where they relate to their families, are being eroded. They face difficulties regarding whether their families will be permitted to visit or stay. If we are to applaud the quality of their work, the very least we might do is ensure they also enjoy a decent quality of life and rights of family, as they play a role in our society. We cannot ignore this issue.

I have concerns about the manner in which work permits were issued or denied in the past. Every public representative has come across cases where decisions were taken at the whim of an official, as Deputy Gerard Murphy stated. I was approached by a number of different people regarding one case. An Indian computer analyst wanted to work for a small information technology company in the midlands. The employer was refused a work permit but, following the exploration of various other avenues, the permit was granted. There was no reason for the refusal in the first place or for the subsequent granting of the permit. What was different? While I welcome the outcome, I am concerned about the lack of transparency in these decisions and I wonder whether the permit was granted at the whim of the employer.

Account must be taken of workplace conditions to ensure migrant workers are not exploited. Every public representative has dealt with cases of abuse in the workplace. Migrant workers are exploited, particularly where their knowledge of English is limited or non-existent. They are vulnerable and afraid and they feel they must dance to the tune of the employer. They are not informed about their rights or where they may seek help and the language barrier is enormous. Moves to ensure such exploitation does not recur are welcome.

I welcome the change which provides that a non-national who applies for employment may transfer from one employer to another provided both employers are in the same sector. However, I am concerned that when employers have applied for the permit, non-nationals will not be able to transfer to another employer, even if he operates in the same sector. This means cases such as that involving Gama Construction could arise again. The fear is unscrupulous employers will still be able to threaten termination of a non-national's employment and tell him or her that, unless he or she fulfils certain conditions, his or her employment will be terminated and he or she will not longer be permitted to work in Ireland. How is that an improvement on the current position?

The legislation will solidify a two-tier system. One tier is for non-nationals who have the required education, skills and means necessary to apply for an employment permit. They will be granted permits which are transferable to other jobs in the same sector, which is good. However, the other tier is for non-nationals whose permits are applied for by an employer who may also be a non-national, as was the case with Gama Construction. Under the legislation, every non-national will have a profession on their work permit but will that make a difference if the non-national whose employer applied for the permit is obliged to surrender it within a month of his or her employment being terminated? I hope I am accurate in this regard but perhaps the Minister will examine the issue. The adoption of a two-tier system is a major concern.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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The permit holder can also transfer to another employer. Gama Construction involves a separate scenario, which I will explain on Committee Stage.

Photo of Mary UptonMary Upton (Dublin South Central, Labour)
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This issue should also be teased out on Committee Stage because it is important.

I welcome a number of positive provisions in the legislation such as making it an offence for an employer to take and keep documents such as passports. Migrant workers are vulnerable and they have sufficient reason to be frightened and scared without their passports being withheld. Those who are considered to be in Ireland illegally may have their status changed, which is also welcome. More migrants workers will be needed in the coming years and the permit process should be as smooth and positive as possible so that they become part of our economy and welcome members of the wider community.

12:00 pm

Photo of Eamon GilmoreEamon Gilmore (Dún Laoghaire, Labour)
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I concur with the observations made by colleagues regarding the shortcomings of the legislation but I will focus on how the work permit regime does not match up with the residency permit regime overseen by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. Joined-up Government is needed in this regard. I appreciate this issue does not come under the remit of the Minister but it relates to this legislation which is being promoted on the assumption that Ireland needs immigrant labour in specific industries from which it benefits and it should be facilitated in a regulated way.

I refer to the cases of approximately 250 young adults described as "aged out minors". These young people arrived in Ireland unaccompanied when they were in their early to mid-teens from war-torn countries and other dangerous circumstances. They were sent here by their parents and guardians who did not know what would happen to them but who needed to get their children to a safe place for their own protection. These unaccompanied minors were placed in the hands of the health boards. They were provided with accommodation and placed in schools and colleges to pursue an education. In most cases, they attained the leaving certificate or equivalent qualification and they integrated in local communities. A number of them play various sports and so on.

However, when they reached the age of 18, they were no longer minors and they became the responsibility of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, having left the care of the health boards. No decision has been made on whether they can remain in the State. Decisions have been made to issue deportation orders against a number of them. Periodically these young people are summoned to attend the Garda national immigration bureau with what they understand to be the possibility that they will be deported. In a number of cases "aged out minors" as they are called, have been deported. Yesterday I attended a meeting with colleagues from both Houses to make a case for these 250 young people, of whom 150 are in direct provision and of whom 100 are with families or have made independent arrangements. None of them has children or dependants.

The case I wish to make in respect of this Bill is as follows. If this country needs immigrant labour, what sense does it make to order the deportation of these people and look to another channel to bring in immigrant labour? These people have grown from adolescence to adulthood here, have received an education here and are available to work. Apart from the dangers to which these people are exposed in being returned to countries where if they have family they do not know where they are, and in many cases where those countries pose a danger to them, it is not fair on a purely human level that young people who had to leave a country at 14 or 15 years of age, move halfway across the world to a different culture, climate and environment and be educated, should be ripped up and sent back. That is not humane. I do not make this point in an adversarial way. I hope and trust the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform will consider the case in a compassionate manner.

I ask the Minister with responsibility for employment and for employment permit legislation and who rightly justifies that on the basis of our need for immigrant labour, to reconcile with the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform the requirements for immigrant labour and skills. These people have received a good level of education and are anxious to pursue further education. In some cases they are marooned as they have completed the leaving certificate but cannot do further education courses. If they are doing these it is beneficial but they cannot work and do not know what the future holds.

This is a case where the requirements of these people need to be examined on a stand alone basis. No precedent is being created, nor are other doors being opened. These people came here, were educated here and they have a contribution to make to Irish society, the community and the economy. That should be valued and they should not be sent back. Many are deeply anxious about what their future holds and the slow grinding of the process does not help. A decision should be made and some political direction needs to be given to the system to clear the decks for the 250 aged out minors. Their residence should be regularised, enabling them to pursue and complete their education, enter employment and make the contribution they are anxious to make to Irish life.

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Independent)
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I welcome the legislation. It demonstrates for the first time the value of and need for migrant workers. This is an important signal to communicate but I have concerns that a two-tier system is being created. We seek to employ highly-skilled, well-educated workers yet the same regime does not apply to people lower down the range of skills. The legislation is cautious and conservative and we need to push the boat out further.

It was suggested that this is a new situation for Ireland and we are only now putting systems in place. In fact, we know a considerable amount on this subject from the other side. We put a great deal of money into our education system and in the 1980s our best educated people, graduates from college, went to Britain and the United States and succeeded. Like most Irish people I had family in that category and the argument was made that this emigration restricted our economic growth as we did not have the skill sets to draw in people. The same argument applies the other way round now. By drawing people from other countries we are creating restrictions in those countries and growth in those economies may be restricted as we receive the brightest and best workers. That we do not cater for people lower on the skills ladder is a problem. It also creates a pull factor, where Ireland is perceived as a place to come to work, yet when people consider this, there is a restriction. I do not say we should have an open door policy but we should have a less restrictive policy.

In our economy we are fortunate to have a low level of unemployment. People taking up skills at the bottom tier of the economy are generally non-nationals. They are taking up jobs that Irish nationals do not seek. We should learn from this. The legislation will not change anything for the vast majority of people here or those who seek to come here. I am not opposed to regulation but the matter needs to be considered further.

I wish to address a concept about which Geroge Lee spoke recently. He talked about "growthless" jobs. Some of this can be accounted for by migrant workers. For example, a man who works in the construction industry contacted me. He came here on a permit, with accommodation provided. He works long hours, is a skilled worker and pays taxes. He has a wife and son in another country and sought permission for them to join him. Their application was rejected on the grounds that the wife and son would be an economic drain on the economy. I advised him to represent his case in a different manner as his accommodation is provided. When I teased it out further with him I learned that his employer suggested it was not a good idea for him to declare that because it would be regarded as benefit in kind and he would have to pay more tax on it. Essentially, it is benefit in kind but that man worked for less money, a significant amount of which was sent home to maintain his family. That money was not spent in our economy. My argument is that jobless growth is the result of migration policies, and the example I have given is probably a reasonable one.

I welcome the direction in which the Bill is going but we can only form our opinions based on examples we have been given. I spoke to a family in the past few weeks. The woman is a staff nurse who works both full-time and part-time in different jobs. Her husband is an engineer who expects to take up employment in the next few weeks. They have a child and are living here under the residency rule but they have three other children, aged 9, 13 and 15, living in another country with family members for the past three years. They sought to have those children join them. I would have thought those people would have a good chance of qualifying under the green card system because of the skills set but there is no relaxation in terms of that process and a little common sense needs to be introduced to it. When examining people's applications we should not refuse them if we are going in that direction. These people are here to stay. They are entitled to stay here and to work but the fact that their children cannot joint them is an impediment. I regard it as a cruel policy when it is likely that these people will stay here.

Health care professionals from this country have travelled to countries like India and the Philippines seeking health care workers to join them here. I had the experience earlier this year of having a family member in hospital who was very well cared for by people from India, the Philippines and other countries. We must appreciate the valuable role these people play but we cannot regard migrant workers simply as economic drones. We all function within families and we must appreciate that non-nationals also function within families. We must take a more caring approach to the people we are asking to come here because in many cases we are adding significant stress to their lives by virtue of the fact that they must endure very long separations from their families, which is not a fair approach.

I welcome the Bill as a first step. It demonstrates the value of migrant workers but I would like it to be amended on later Stages with a view to introducing some relaxation of the rules.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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I welcome the opportunity to say a few words about this legislation. Unlike other speakers, I want to endorse the words of Deputy Gilmore wherein he indicated that there could and should be a meeting of minds between the two relevant Departments to make the best possible use of the type of people about whom the Deputy spoke. We all have them in our constituencies. It is ironic because they speak with Irish accents yet they are about to be deported because of the type of situation about which Deputy Gilmore spoke. It is daft that that should be the case. Those people have been educated here. They want to continue that education or their work here but their prospects are not good because of the circumstances in which they came here in the first place and the fact that their relatives are in another country.

Another aspect that must be borne in mind is that this economy has adopted a high wage economy policy. I do not necessarily agree with that. There are two sides to that argument. We have seen a considerable amount of relocation to low wage economies in south-east Asia resulting in job losses here. That is unsustainable and it will cause a problem further down the road. In the meantime, there is a possibility that some unscrupulous people will decide to replace that high wage economy with their own low wage economy by utilising non-national workers and paying them less than the going rate. That has a dual negative knock-on effect. First, it contributes to racism and, second, it is unfair. It is grossly unfair that any Irish employer would treat a non-national worker as a second class citizen.

Before continuing I want to compliment those employers who were particularly anxious to care for non-national employees because in them they see a mirror image of themselves, particularly those of them who emigrated from this country in the 1940s and 1950s. There are quite a number of them in the building industry and they now employ people from across the world and give them great care and attention. They look after them as if they were family because they remember that they were in the same circumstances. I compliment those employers.

I have fewer compliments for some employers who treat their employees badly because they know there is no redress. They are the boss and nothing will change because these non-nationals are far from home and it is too difficult for them to get another job or to get away from their employer because heretofore the work permit process was employer driven. It is hoped that will change now but there are pros and cons either way.

I emphasise, however, that those employers who treat their unfortunate employees badly should be ashamed of themselves and we should be ashamed of them also because they are not doing any good for the country's image. Neither are they doing themselves any good because the wheel always turns. While we may we very affluent and self-sufficient now, there will be other times when that is not the case. As I have often said in this House, if all our emigrants and people of Irish descent across the world were to descend on this island, it would be very crowded. Having said that, the more people we have in the country, the more economical it is to provide goods and services to the people concerned. I do not subscribe to the notion put forward by some people that there is a certain number of people with whom it is comfortable to live and we should not have any more than that.

To return to the Bill, regardless of how we go about it difficulties will arise. We have seen abuses in the employer delivered work permit system, and those abuses will continue. A technique must be found whereby the employee can, within reason, relocate to another employer without having to return and re-apply or whatever. I realise that is the proposal but it should be done as a matter of urgency.

Another aspect about which I am a little concerned is the activities of agencies. The Minister's colleague, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, made an attack on economic immigrants some time ago. Fortunately, I was not in the committee room at the time because both my parents were economic immigrants at one time, as I am sure were the parents of many of the people in the House. We should never forget where we came from because if we examine our past, it will always tell us something about our future. I completely disagree with the notion that it is a capital offence to be an economic immigrant. People throughout the world have become economic immigrants and people left the shores of this country for economic reasons for generations. Let us be clear about it. We can either accept circumstances as they are or try to change history, but people leaving this country for economic reasons is the way it was here and I hope it will never come to that again.

Many of the poor people who come here seeking employment must pay some intermediary an excessive sum of money, which their families have collected. This is not acceptable. Worse still, many such workers must pay an agency when they arrive. That is reprehensible. Once employment is found the fee is paid and that should be the end of the matter. It should be possible to deal with that in the State agencies such as the Minister's Department and the Department of Social and Family Affairs, although the latter's role in this process is not always helpful.

It is important to find a means to ensure that no added penalty is imposed on the employee after employment is found. It should also be possible for the employee to move from one employer to another. That would serve two purposes, namely create competition and help eliminate abuse.

The policy adopted by the United States and Australia some years ago of admitting only those people who had certain skills or could command a certain income, is not the right one for us. The problem here is the reverse of that situation. We require people who will do the jobs many of our people will not do. That is not fair to the employees coming into the country but it is a fact. There are posts in many occupations which are impossible to fill with local employees. The Minister should consider making it easier for poor people from abroad, who are willing to work in these positions, to come here without too much bureaucracy. That problem will persist.

It is contradictory for industries to relocate from here to low-wage economies while we prevent those who are willing to work in low-wage jobs coming here. Although I have not been in this House as long as the Leas-Cheann Comhairle, and probably will not be, I am intrigued by some of the contradictions I have seen in my time here. I am sure the Leas-Cheann Comhairle has seen many more of them. If we do not cater for these industries we will lose them entirely from our economy.

We have all dealt with situations in which a non-national, married to an Irish citizen, has children who are theoretically the children of an Irish citizen through marriage but are forbidden to enter the country, or find it difficult to enter.

The Department of Social and Family Affairs has a role in this matter. The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform also has a role and has introduced rules to the effect that anybody who, as a resident, is likely to impose a burden on the economy is denied entry. That is a contradiction too and is in breach of international law. Anybody in employment who makes social insurance contributions has a right to his or her entitlements.

It is ridiculous to make parish pump laws whereby we accept social insurance contributions, and an employee's contribution to the economy but give nothing to that person when he or she is out of work or between jobs. That proposal is being suggested in respect of economic immigrants from eastern Europe. I am waiting for somebody, including somebody from the new member states of the European Union, to challenge that.

Any citizen of the European Union has a right under EU law to receive his or her entitlements. This applies across Europe and cannot be dispensed with by any country on an ad hoc basis. Membership of the European Union brings certain obligations and benefits and we cannot switch them on and off as a situation requires.

We in Ireland are better placed than most others to set a shining example in dealing with work permits for non-national workers. We should show people how we would have liked to see it done because our experiences abroad were not always good. At least we know the difference and should be able to set out how to be fair to those in a less privileged position. We have experienced at first hand the need felt by many of these visitors to our shores.

Occasionally one hears people say there are too many non-nationals here. That is fine but they are here because we need them to work in our economy. If they do not fill the positions where will we find people to do so?

The situation at Irish Ferries is most peculiar as it appears to create a second tier of employment in our economy. I do not know what provision covers this but the end seems to justify the means because the company says it will not be viable unless it does this and so the matter is agreed. If that policy is pursued there will be consequences. The company's competitors will start to do likewise which will cause considerable industrial strife in our economy that may spread. I do not accept the case being made for this action. We need to examine it and recognise the likely consequences.

It is often said of people from low-wage economies working here that they would get very little at home. The theory behind this comment is that these people are lucky to be here working for half the normal wage and should be grateful for that. One could easily apply the argument that we should be grateful they came here to do work nobody else is willing to do and to do it for half the price. However, no one ever seems to want to examine the argument from that perspective. I find it objectionable when someone says that the migrants would earn very little at home, since they would have very few outgoings there either. When they are living and working in Ireland, however, they have the same outgoings as everyone else.

A considerable number of immigrants have settled down and bought their own homes, despite having great difficulty in securing a loan and so on. They have worked extremely hard to do that. Nothing has been done to ease their path towards obtaining a loan, but they have managed it and they are making a commitment to this economy. They have made their case and set out their stall by deciding on what they want to do and settling and investing here. We should recognise and appreciate that since they have shown not simply a one or two-year commitment but a willingness to work with, through, for and in this economy.

I was recently amazed, speaking to a teacher in a school, to find that leaving certificate students with only two years' education in Irish were able to pass at honours level. It is amazing to think how they dedicated themselves to achieving that. It is an example to everyone else if a child who has had only two years' grinds in the language is able to get right to the top in one fell swoop. We should be grateful of the opportunity to have non-national workers in this country. We should treat them equally and not discriminate against them. We should remember that we provided the same kinds of services and took up the same kinds of employment in other economies for many generations. I hope that we have learnt a great deal from what we saw and suffered during that period and I hope that we will have the magnanimity to ensure that those who work in our economy in similar circumstances are treated in a way that makes us proud. That does not always happen, but we hope that it can be changed.

Photo of Ciarán CuffeCiarán Cuffe (Dún Laoghaire, Green Party)
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While the Bill is a step in the right direction, the Green Party still has very strong concerns. It does not go far enough and today I would like to dwell on three issues. The small print confirms that the work permit is not given directly to the employee, and that must happen. Second, the Bill appears to address only those with higher skills levels. From the newspaper, it seems that the Government is putting out a message that this is for people on higher incomes. However, they are not the only people whom we need.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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I agree.

Photo of Ciarán CuffeCiarán Cuffe (Dún Laoghaire, Green Party)
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Third, there is an absence on the Government side of the House of an immigration policy. We need one and we must recognise, nurture and provide for those who come to this country and whom we should welcome.

Regarding the first issue of not giving the work permit directly to the employee, the Government announced this Bill with much fanfare, saying that it would finally give rights to the employee. However, it does not go far enough since one cannot change one's work or move around without going to the employer. Our criticism for several years has been that the type of work permits being granted can often result in workers being treated as little more than indentured servants. One cannot change jobs without going to one's employer nor can one move around without reference to the Government or to one's employer. Even when one applies in the first place, one must supply details of the place of work, the hours, the pay, the employer and so on all down the line.

I am quite surprised that the Progressive Democrats went along with this since it seems to bring about much more regulation in the area. We need clarity and simplicity, something that party's members have certainly argued for in Government. Frankly, I am surprised that they do not seek a much clearer system. We would like that.

Immigration is not rocket science; it can be managed quite quickly and easily. First, the Minister should decide what kinds of immigrants Ireland needs, examine best practice abroad, and put a system in place that provides for that. One would work out every year, biennially or triennially what kinds of immigrants we want. One would impose a quota, allow people to apply and provide permission to work in Ireland. It is as simple as that. I am concerned that this system will be bureaucratic and difficult to operate and that it will make it difficult for the employee, leaving him or her vulnerable and not providing the kind of clarity that we need in this area.

I know the kinds of people whom we wish to attract. For instance, in nursing, it seems to me from the various Government pronouncements over recent weeks that they will not get a look in and neither will the kinds of manual labourers whom we need because we cannot fill posts. If one is an information technology professional, one might be able to find one's way through the Bill's hoops, but the signals from the Government do not indicate that we will get the kinds of immigrants whom we need to fill the jobs that companies and employers cannot.

We must provide decent working conditions for those who come here. If working conditions change, the employee is stuck in Ireland, hundreds, if not thousands, of miles from home, and is not given the right to move employer. That is not right and must change. The Minister has announced 31 new labour inspectors. We still have more dog licence inspectors. It is not good enough and the Minister must re-prioritise and ensure that employers are scrutinised on compliance with labour regulations.

We hear every day of the week about crazy working conditions and significant abuse of the system. We must send a very clear message to employers that we will monitor working hours and wages and ensure that regulations are honoured. One need only open a newspaper to discover yet more breaches of the law. The labour safety inspectorate recently found that one in eight accidents that occur in the State involved someone from outside Ireland. The figures show that such people are vulnerable. Those are the fellows told to lash up on scaffolding and knock out pipes; an Irishman does not do that. They are vulnerable, in many cases not having insurance or even speaking the language. They are at the beck and call of the employer. This Bill does not address that. We must give employees better rights and ensure that they need not tip their hats to employers. This Bill does not achieve that.

We must also move ahead in honouring international commitments. The United Nations General Assembly adopted the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families in 1990, yet we have not even ratified it. Signature is one thing, but ratification is what counts. Given that hundreds of thousands of people have come to Ireland, we must ensure that their rights and those of their families are honoured and vindicated. We support an immigration policy underpinned by a human rights approach that respects the minimum standards set out in international law regarding migrant workers. I do not see that coming through strongly enough in the legislation. We must ensure the kinds of people needed in the Irish economy are attracted here.

I am not convinced such changes are being discussed by the Government. There remains a certain reticence in this regard. We must provide for immigration to fill the vacancies that cannot be filled by Irish workers. In addition, we must recognise, regularise and welcome immigrants. It is a significant change and one that is perhaps easier for people of my generation, many of whom have lived and worked abroad, to accept. Many Irish people in their 30s or 40s were obliged to emigrate 15 or 20 years ago and make a new life in Barcelona, Berlin or Boston. They returned with a willingness and openness in terms of working with people of other nationalities. There may be a reluctance in this regard among those who never left Ireland.

I suspect there is a similar reluctance on the part of the Government and it must move beyond its current cautiousness in this area. There is no doubt that there must be careful screening of who can enter and remain in Ireland. However, immigrants who have worked here for four or five years should have a right to residency. This Bill may lead to a situation where we experience the same difficulties as those encountered by Germany in respect of its guest worker system, where people were brought in when times were good but asked to leave, sometimes in a hurry, when times were bad. There is a dangerous resonance there. Migrant workers who contribute to the economy for several years should be allowed to remain, along with their families. We cannot welcome people to the party and then eject them in less prosperous times.

I recognise that the Bill is a practical step forward and I support it in this regard. However, the seminal issue of allowing the employee to work here separately from the employer must be included in the legislation. I look forward to an amendment in this respect.

1:00 pm

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill and the issues of immigration and work permits policy. Legislation in this area is not before time. The Employment Permits Bill 2005 aims primarily to allow the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment to grant and refuse work permits and visas for a range of employment categories and to put a legal framework in place to accommodate such activity.

Ireland is a much changed place in the last 15 years and that process of change continues. There is a generation of young working people who are more ambitious and confident than their predecessors and who expect economic success unknown to previous generations. They are the people who will continue to drive the economy into the future. To sustain such progress, workers from abroad will be required. Within the EU, Ireland is seen as a model for success and people want to come here. As a result, there will be a continuation of the transit of skilled workers from other European countries to experience what we have to offer in terms of quality of life and the job opportunities we continue to create. This has been an inherently positive development. Outside the EU, we are seen as a small country with a large reputation. Ireland has the second highest income per capita in Europe, after Finland, and is seen as a wealthy place of opportunity.

A neutral person might believe I am speaking on behalf of the Government. I refer to the perception of Ireland abroad but there is no doubt that we are not without our problems. In essence, the issue we must deal with in the context of migration policy is the requirement for immigrant workers to facilitate the continued development of the economy. There are some 160,000 immigrant workers in Ireland, comprising 8% of the workforce, and this number will increase. At the same time, Ireland is a destination of choice for many workers and that is a significant advantage in our task. We must develop a sensible, practical and efficient means of aligning our requirement for skilled migrant workers with the desire of many people from other countries to come to Ireland. We have not been particularly successful in this regard heretofore.

The legislation proposes three pillars for migration policy, comprising three categories of worker which Ireland wants to attract and each of which will receive different treatment. The concept of attracting workers with a certain skills set to match requirements is welcome. However, I wish to use the opportunity of this debate to raise an issue that must be addressed urgently by the Government. One obvious skills shortage is in the area of medicine. The shortage of doctors is compounded by a third level medical education system which is a farce. The number of places in medicine available to Irish students is restricted because third level institutions are obliged to accommodate a quota of foreign students paying high fees to finance the courses they provide.

The many foreign students undertaking medical training in Ireland are welcome. However, many of them return home once their education is complete and take their expertise with them. The restriction on the numbers of Irish students taking medical courses is an issue that must be addressed. It may not be the direct responsibility of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment but it has a role to play in trying to persuade the Department of Education and Science to rectify this restrictive situation for Irish students. The only way to address this problem is by putting more resources into third level medical faculties so that institutions are not required to finance their training by charging foreign students high fees. Something must be done in this regard before we are obliged to recruit even more doctors and medical staff from abroad.

The first pillar of the proposed migration system is the introduction of green cards for people with skills in areas in which there is a shortage of qualified Irish workers. I strongly welcome the concept of a green card system. It is a facility that has been used successfully in other countries and it is not before time that it was introduced here. I object, however, to categorising workers according to ranges of earnings. I do not accept that the main skill set we need consists of those earning more than €60,000 per year. There are just as many sectors with average earnings between €30,000 and €60,000 in respect of which green cards are required. The message we may be sending out is that the more one earns, the more one is valued. I do not support such a policy.

However, the introduction of the green card system represents significant progress and I congratulate the Government in this regard. Green cards will allow workers to be mobile in terms of moving from one job to another within their skills set. This is long overdue as opposed to workers being tied to one employer and afraid to object if they are mistreated. I am happy to support the idea of a green card that allows a person to come here and work as long he or she is needed for his or her skill.

The second pillar does not need as much discussion. It is an obvious area that needed revamping. The re-establishment of inter-company transfer systems for temporary transnational management is necessary in a country that has so many foreign employers. Management goes into and out of companies in Ireland on a regular basis. Certainly the pharmaceutical sector in my constituency in Cork is a good example. It is right and proper to allow management move from one company to another should the need arise.

Pillar three, the meat of this policy, is a work permit scheme for a restricted list of occupants up to an earnings category of €30,000 per year where the shortage is of labour rather than skill. Is it being suggested that those who do not earn €30,000 are not skilled? It may be necessary to revise the language used. While I know what the Minister is trying to say, those who may be earning €27,000 or €28,000 per year may rightly ask if the skill they bring to the job is not valued. I do not know the answer to that question.

The cost for the first two-year work permit is €1,000 and for a further three-year work permit €1,500. Is there a cost for a green card and, if not, are green cards issued free of charge while there is a charge for work permits? If that is the case the issue needs to be analysed and rebalanced.

The application procedure to obtain a work permit has been a huge headache for my office in Cork as I am sure it has been many other Deputies. People who may be in Ireland on student visas or on holidays cannot apply for work permits while in Ireland. They need to return home before they can apply to come back again. Is that matter being addressed in the legislation and in the Minister's new plans for a new work permit system? It should be possible for a person who is studying in Ireland and has got a job, a skill that is required and a company that wishes to employ him or her, not to have to return to New Zealand, Australia or South Africa to apply through the embassy to come back to Ireland. That type of nonsense needs to be addressed in the legislation.

I understand why the Minister may have taken a restrictive approach in the past. There is, however, a need for a flexible system that allows a person who approaches the Department or an employer who wishes to employ him or her to transfer from a student visa to a work permit without the necessity to return home. I ask the Minister to address that issue in his concluding remarks.

The giving of the permit to the employee rather than the employer is welcome. This empowers the employee somewhat, although it does not solve the problem. If a person obtains a work permit he or she is still tied to the job unless he or she goes through the laborious procedure of reapplying for another work permit for another job. The work permit does not provide for labour mobility through the marketplace in the same way as a green card. Why not have a green card system the whole way through for each category? The Minister can still be restrictive as to whom they are issued. Let us have the same standards of mobility for a person who earns €60,000 or more and a person who earns €25,000 to enable the workforce move around.

For example, if a farm labourer is required for seasonal work he or she should be facilitated in doing that work through a work permit system. Even though that seasonal work may last only six months he or she may be able to slot into a different type of seasonal work on another farm for the other half of the year. Currently, to facilitate that type of work mobility that person, in co-operation with an employer, must apply for a new work permit for the second six months. That is a practical example but there are many more.

I welcome the fact the Government is toughening up on those who breach legislation in this area. Those who exploit migrant workers deserve to be treated toughly by Government. Not only have they no respect for those working for them but they have a competitive advantage over other companies which obey the law. That is unacceptable. The matter needs to be addressed by being tough and making an example of people, if necessary, so that the idea of exploiting migrant workers will not be countenanced. If new laws are introduced they will have to be enforced. Unfortunately, there are certain employers throughout the country who are laughing at us and who pay workers far less. That should not happen. I welcome the aspiration to toughen up.

On the delicate political issue of how asylum seekers are treated the Minister may say this is not an issue for his Department but rather for the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. I differ with the Minister on that issue. If the State cannot deal with an asylum seeker who has been in Ireland for six to eight months, that person should be allowed work under some form of restricted work permit system to enable them pay their own way. There are many asylum seekers who are highly skilled who are fleeing persecution but it takes the State four to five years to make a decision on their asylum application. In the meantime they have to live in a hostel or social housing when they could and want to pay their own way for themselves and their family.

An issue that promotes racism is that many asylum seekers who have been in Ireland for four our five years because the State cannot make a decision on their application have nothing to do and give the impression that there are far more of them. They are not integrating into society because they have no work. An opportunity is being missed at a time when many have a skill that will fit into the categories here.

An Olympic gymnast who had come to Ireland came to me and, like many who are economic migrants rather than asylum seekers, the only way she could remain here was to claim asylum. All will agree that the two issues of economic migrants and asylum seekers need to be separated. She wanted to make the transition from asylum to get a work permit. She was by far the most skilled gymnast in the country and people wanted to employ her in Cork to share her skills as a trainer. She had to be sent back to Romania, a process that took more than two months, where she relinquished her asylum application, applied for a work permit and eventually got back after much negotiation. She is a classic example of somebody who came here to seek asylum because that was the only avenue open to her. She then realised she had gone through the wrong channels, wished to seek a work permit and abandoned her claims for asylum. We should have a flexible system that can deal with such cases.

I am glad the Minister, Deputy Martin, has arrived in the Chamber. He probably did not hear my earlier remarks. While the Bill is welcome in general there are some issues we still need to address. One such issue concerns asylum seekers who have been here for six to eight months or more. The State knows it will take time to assess such asylum applications but if those people have a skills set that fits the categories we want, we should be able to facilitate that transition in their status. I do not buy into the argument that if we do so we will attract more and more asylum seekers, as some people claim.

The legislation is welcome and not before its time. I am not convinced, however, that we require three separate pillars. We could introduce a green card system for all categories and still be restrictive as regards the skills set we allow to work here. The benefit of that would be proper mobility throughout the work force for people, whether they earn €25,000 or €85,000 a year. We should allow proper work force mobility between jobs, rather than requiring people to re-visit the Department every time they want to change or have a problem with their employer.

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath, Fine Gael)
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I am glad to have an opportunity to comment on the Bill. We will have to examine this legislation closely on Committee Stage because more details were announced by the Minister in his speech than appear in the Bill, including the three pillars system. We will have to work on this Bill on an all-party basis during the remaining Stages.

While I welcome the legislation, the immigration issue has not been dealt with very well by the Government. I have said repeatedly that the Government has not examined the issue over the past three years and has neglected it. In addition to this legislation, the immigration and residence Bill will also come before the House, but since the issues overlap, these measures should be debated together. After five or six years of immense pressure arising from immigration, the Government is dealing with it now when things are beginning to calm down. It is a shame that it took the Government so long to address this matter. Every Deputy has had to deal with such problems in constituency offices. The lack of a proper immigration policy has caused much damage, and not solely concerning work permits. The immigration issue should have been dealt with properly and more clearly before now.

Deputy Coveney referred to racism which has been fuelled by the lack of clear guidance on immigration. I fear this lack of proper guidance has set the foundations for major problems in the years to come. The Government will be to blame for that since it did not act quickly enough. It is not necessarily solely the fault of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment because I agree that there is a cross-over with the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. The issue touches upon every Department, however, and it has not been addressed. Much of it comes down to begrudgery because Irish people do not know exactly what immigrants are doing here, what they are entitled to do, what they are receiving and whether or not they are working. There has been a lack of clarity, information and advice. I hope we will not be discussing such failures in five years' time when other problems arise.

Many refugees and asylum seekers have been waiting three, four or five years for a response to their applications, informing them whether they may remain here. The Bill does not deal with this matter. While waiting they are not allowed to work, contribute to society or participate in any way. In fact, they are costing us money, which is a shame. They do not want to cost us money. They are here for various reasons but they would prefer to work, earn money and look after themselves and their families. Nobody gains from the current situation which leaves everyone dissatisfied and fuels racism. It is a lose-lose situation across the board but it must be addressed. Our Departments cannot cope with the number of applications, so we know it will take two, three or four years to process them. Therefore, we should issue renewable six-month work permits for the first two years to such people who are here. The work permits will probably not be issued to those in the €30,000 per year category, but to those in lower skilled jobs. However, they want to work so they should be allowed to do so. It is not fair to leave people in Mosney to undertake study courses, living on €20 or €30 per week. They may be looked after but that is not what they want.

I have come across people in my constituency office who are trained in pharmacy and other health areas, yet they are not allowed to work. It is the greatest waste of talent, which is a shame. The Minister's Department together with the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform should be able suggest some solutions. This is not rocket science. We know it will take three years to deal with such applications so why not do something for them in the interim?

The unnecessary delays in the application process are causing confusion. It is difficult to obtain information on work permits, including how to go about getting them and who is entitled to apply. The legislation is changing but people should be informed of these changes. The Minister said he hopes to engage next year in an education policy by disseminating information. When that is done, I hope it will be made clear to everyone, including those applying for work permits, what is going on. It is common knowledge to all of us what is expected of a non-national who wants to work here, including the hassle non-nationals must endure in order to work. We must determine the target groups to whom the information should be addressed. Clarity is required because there is an awful lot of misinformation.

We all hear stories of people attending constituency clinics looking for something and the first thing they say is, "If I was a non-national...". That situation needs to end once and for all through providing clear information to everyone.

The Minister referred to different pillars, including a €30,000 to €60,000 category, but where did the lower figure come from? When it first came out the figure was €55,000 but I am glad someone had sense and realised that it represented a junior doctor's status. Where did we come up with the idea that one had to earn more than €30,000 a year to be considered as a skilled worker and qualify for a green card? Perhaps there is a logical reason behind it and, if so, I would like to hear it.

The legislation concerns a policy of issuing permits to bring people to work here. We need many such people and thousands of them are already here. The legislation does not refer to integration. It is all about work permits for immigrants but we cannot expect people to come here to work if we do nothing to help them to integrate. Very little is being done in that regard at the moment.

I have seen non-nationals in Navan, Kells, Trim and elsewhere in County Meath, and I am sure it is the same in every other county, who come here with or without work permits. They are living in estates and are trying to do their various jobs, but nothing is being done to help them to blend into our society. Consequently, they are not happy and neither are their neighbours. Something must be done to integrate them because it is no good bringing people here to work without a proper integration system that would help to get them involved in society. In that way they would gain more socially rather than merely economically. That responsibility needs to be addressed in the Bill. We must debate how we can achieve that objective.

Many people come here to work from outside the EU member states but they are unsure of their rights and responsibilities. One clear example can be seen on the roads where people are not used to driving on the left-hand side. This problem must be dealt with in a cross-departmental manner because it involves different Ministers. Many of those coming to live here are not ready to drive on our roads. Quite a number of local people cannot drive properly either, but that is another day's work. Do newly arrived immigrants know the rules of the road and are they receiving training in this regard? That is one example, but there are many other areas in which people coming from abroad need help and guidance. They need to be informed of their responsibilities and educated about our ways both for their own peace of mind and safety. I have seen too many crashes involving non-nationals. They may occur for various reasons but the problem needs to be discussed and sorted out. It cannot continue. I can produce facts showing we need to tackle this area. It is a matter which is slipping through. It is relevant to work permits, immigration etc. It is not being discussed sufficiently and it is not being resolved.

The Bill does not make it clear whether the work permit is issued to the employer or the employee. My reading is that the employee will get it if he or she has the offer of a job, which means it is still in the control of an employer. If the work permit is tied either to the employer or to a job the employee is not in control. An employee who loses a job will no longer have a permit which means that employees will still be fearful of what would happen if they question employers or do something wrong. The legislation does not go far enough as it still ties employees who do not have the scope to move to another job. Perhaps the Minister can clarify the position for me.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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They may change jobs after 12 months.

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath, Fine Gael)
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It is hard to make that out from the Bill. However, I will take the Minister's word for it. Perhaps the 12 month timeframe should be reconsidered as things can go wrong within that time. What would happen if an employee were made redundant after six months? As we all know Coca-Cola will move its operation across the Border and will take many jobs with it. I do not know how much was done from this end to try to prevent that from happening.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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A lot.

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath, Fine Gael)
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Why is the company still going?

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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We all know the answer to that. The Deputy should not play politics.

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath, Fine Gael)
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I do not know the answer. I have not heard any debate on the matter here.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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It was contained in the press announcement. The reason was water.

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath, Fine Gael)
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It was as simple as water. A large number of jobs were lost because of water. It seems very strange.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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It was the company's decision. We had nothing to do with it.

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath, Fine Gael)
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The Minister should not get excited. I was just wondering what we had done to prevent it from happening. We can come back to that matter.

What would happen to any Coca-Cola employees who might have work permits? What will change when this legislation is enacted? If their jobs go after six months the permit will still be tied to the employer and they would need to leave the country to reapply. Those matters need to be clarified. The Minister should not shake his head; I am entitled to ask questions. The answers are not contained in the Bill.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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The Deputy should relax.

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath, Fine Gael)
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I am asking these questions, as this area has not been discussed adequately.

The Bill provides that employees will be told of their rights in their contracts. It also provides that the cost of recruitment cannot be deducted from employees' wages. However, details of the contract of employment are not stated clearly. Many non-nationals are not clearly advised what they will be paid. Some are being given accommodation and cars and a certain amount of money each month — I will formally furnish the Minister with information regarding certain companies that do this. Employees do not know how much they should be paid. Given the other benefits, they may be adequately paid but their wages are not clearly set out. This is not satisfactory as it leaves considerable doubt. Employees are often afraid to ask questions or express concern about being paid properly.

The Minister stated that there have been 31 labour inspectors since April. They will only deal with cases brought to their attention by way of accusations and much abuse goes unreported. How should we hunt that down? Do we have sufficient inspectors to follow through on those matters and carry out investigations in employers' premises without their being tipped off beforehand? While increasing the number of staff is of considerable help, I am still not sure if the numbers are sufficient.

The issue of workers with permits bringing the rest of their family here must be tackled. The system is failing and there is considerable confusion. I have come across many of these cases and no clear criteria are set down stating what an employee on a permit needs to have achieved, be earning or have saved in order that he or she can bring his or her family here. Letters refusing such people permission to bring their families often state they are earning insufficient money. They could be earning €15,000 to €20,000, which is more than the amount on which we expect a family on social welfare to survive. The Department of Social and Family Affairs can expect a family to live on a certain amount and yet other Departments believe this is insufficient to provide for a family. Which Department is wrong? Either the Department of Social and Family Affairs is not giving enough or we are asking too much of non-nationals and discriminating against them. This matter needs to be resolved and the Bill is inadequate in addressing how families should be permitted to come. Reference is made to the higher bracket of €60,000 or more as proof of having sufficient money to provide for a family.

Many people are working here in miserable conditions and spend hours on the phone to home, which is not good enough. While I understand there is a fear that the family would become a burden on the State, we need to reconsider the matter and address it. As many of our family members have spent time working abroad we should know how bad it is and we should go out of our way to set an example and make it better. However, we make it hard. It takes numerous applications to get a spouse or family to come here, which is not good enough. It is unfair to introduce a Bill without addressing such matters.

I look forward to the programme of education to be introduced next year. We have discussed those with work permits transferring between jobs. The issue of transferable skills of those who trained in another country must be addressed. People's skills are often outside the control of the Government. We need to consider the matter and see what can be done so that someone trained abroad can easily do a refresher course to work in this country for an appropriate remuneration. In many cases people are unable to get the job for which they trained owing to specific qualification requirements.

I touched on the issue of non-national students who need to leave the country to apply for a permit, which is an awful waste. It places a burden on the person who must incur cost in returning to his or her country. The time he or she must wait is lost. These people have been through our college system and we should find a way to eliminate the necessity of them leaving the country to get a work permit. In other countries, for example Canada, students approaching the end of their college days can apply for a permit to stay. They do not need to leave the country and come back and this should apply here.

Many non-nationals on work permits who have been here for four, five or six years have children who want to attend college but who are required to pay substantial student fees. While people from some countries are exempt, people from many other countries are required to pay considerable sums. Such people might have lived here for many years, played a major part in the community and may have applied for citizenship but they must still pay very high college fees. This area needs to be reconsidered. While we seem to be quite happy to have such people contribute to our economy, we still want to charge them to send their children to college. As we encourage students to continue their education to third level, we should make it easier for people who will most likely end up living here permanently. We should apply common sense.

We should learn from the experiences in other countries. Most people believe the green card system in the United States works well. However, the Americans would also admit they are getting the family reunification system wrong. We have learnt from them and from other countries. We should consider what changes we should introduce. This is one of the major areas that needs to be addressed.

Some intending migrants before leaving their home country may have heard much about Ireland and how good it is. They are not being given enough information before they leave to allow them to make an informed decision and help them settle in on arrival. Since the mid-1990s the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment has advertised to encourage Irish people to return home from places like South Africa and Australia. Many others who were not originally Irish came from those countries too. They heard that Ireland was a great country, with big jobs and lots of money. When they arrived they found how costly it would be to stay. They saw the high cost of living, and what would be expected of them. Accordingly there should be much more pre-departure information about the cost of living here, rental costs, school costs, tax, employment rights and so on. All this should be made clear to people before they come to Ireland. The Government cannot go to different countries to give such information but the agencies organising work permits do not give out clear information. Many people arrive here simply in hope. There is an onus on us to do what we can in this area.

Getting a work permit, and permission from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform to stay in Ireland, is a slow and cumbersome business. The Minister liaises with that Department, but it is struggling with the workload and with being a service provider to the public. That was not its job originally, but in the past few years it has had to deal with a great number of applications. That needs to be examined and sorted out with more staff or whatever is necessary. The situation cannot continue whereby one must wait 15 or 16 months to get information and perhaps three or four years for permits other than work permits. This is not fair. One can be told to phone the Department in this regard only on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and there might be no reply. That is no way to treat anyone. This matter falls under immigration policy. The system and how it works must be made clearer to the public, as must people's entitlements.

The Minister said a group would review immigration policy, outline the list of skilled jobs for which workers are needed and update it regularly. There should be an independent advisory board of some sort to oversee immigration issues and react quickly. This area changes rapidly. It is a cross-departmental responsibility. In Australia for example, the list of skilled workers needed is updated every six months. Hopefully we will get to that stage too.

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Dublin West, Labour)
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I thank the Minister for attending this debate. The Minister's predecessor in his post, Deputy Harney, decided with Government that the economic road we would take was one of attracting tens of thousands of immigrants into this country every year. That policy has not been adopted by every country. It was agreed on the basis of permits to employers, which in many instances came to operate like a bonded labour system, with many reports of abuses around the country. In that context I congratulate a number of trade unions, especially SIPTU and its officials, which over the past few years have followed in detail issues of exploitation and ripping-off of foreign workers brought in on contract and treated very badly.

How effective will the regulations be with regard to agents, agencies and people who find foreign workers? No matter what we try to do, there will be people in vulnerable situations who will be recruited by local agents, will end up owing them large amounts of money and will in effect be indentured labourers, but based in Ireland rather than in India or Pakistan, for example.

A report was published earlier this week by the child development initiative in west Tallaght concentrating on four of the poorest estates in that area. I remind the Minister of this in case it is forgotten. The report indicated that the level of unemployment in those four estates is 10%. I hope that in the rush to bring in immigrants we do not lose sight of the people in our communities, whether in west Tallaght, Blanchardstown or the Minister's own city of Cork. Many Irish people are not getting opportunities to participate in the economy. Many young men drop out of school early. Some of them have specific problems, but we have serious problems with regard to our own people participating. Government policy should focus just as much on giving opportunity to Irish people, wherever they live, as on bringing in immigrants, which in some instances is not thought through.

Like every Deputy, I am inundated by people who have come to Ireland to work, make a good contribution to the economy and who give their services. However, when for instance a child is born, a foreign grandparent cannot get a visa to visit. Regarding a green card policy, Bruce Morrison has done a great deal of work for Irish emigrants in America and on numerous occasions he has said that if one accepts a green card system of any kind, one must accept that a large proportion of the people availing of it will come to settle in Ireland, and that their families will come too. That is particularly true with regard to parts of the Indian subcontinent where the policy of marriages arranged by parents remains the cultural norm.

This is a difficult problem which the Minister must acknowledge. For example, we have large numbers of people employed at a high level in the computer industry in Ireland who originate from the Indian subcontinent. The issue of members of their families, or indeed husbands and wives, being able to come to Ireland, has not been resolved. I know the Minister's Department is not directly responsible, but this needs to be addressed. Consider, for example, how that situation affects a person who has developed a pharmaceutical company in Ireland. He is a doctor from some other part of the world and his wife is an Irish doctor. I know of one foreign person who won awards for an enterprise he and his partner set up. Happily, they had a child. The man's parents lived in the Indian subcontinent and it took almost two years of going back and forth to the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to get a visitor's visa for the grandparents. The grandparents were people of significant means and there were no indications that they were going to come to Ireland and live off the Exchequer. These issues must be addressed.

Another issue arises more in the context of the next debate, namely coherence. Ireland has a significant development policy which we are continuing to expand and hopefully one day we will live up to the commitment of 0.7% of GNP promised in overseas aid. However, where is the coherence with regard to poaching from Third World countries some of the most highly qualified doctors, nurses and other professionals? If we take so many of those qualified staff from countries like the Philippines, South Africa and other countries with huge needs, what do we give them back? Is there a way of giving people a good opportunity to be in Ireland for a period of time, earning money and getting experience, but of also ensuring that if possible, their expertise, which is desperately needed in their own countries, particularly in rural areas of the developing world, is returned? In some ways this is an exchange. People are educated to a high level and are then poached by Ireland. Health services in many developing countries are thus left bereft of these badly needed professionals.

I ask for a coherent statement from the Minister about the Government's drive with regard to immigration, its implications for us as a society, and the implications of poaching staff from developing countries where they are badly needed. In conjunction with his colleague in the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, would the Minister consider conducting a review of asylum seekers and compiling a register of skills, particularly of those with children who have been here for a long time, to see if some of them could fit into this category and be given the right to work and contribute to the economy?

Debate adjourned.