Thursday, 10 November 2005
Employment Permits Bill 2005: Second Stage (Resumed].
When we left off, I was speaking about the problems faced by non-nationals who have married Irish citizens and who are waiting for approval of their residency applications. As I said then, I continue to hear about the problems these couples face during the 16 to 18 months it takes for the residency application to be approved, primarily because the non-national spouse cannot work without a work permit during this time. Since last speaking on the Bill, a further case in the same area has been referred to me. This problem is prevalent and needs urgent address. I said previously, and I repeat, that 16 to 18 months is a long time for two adults, perhaps with dependants, to live on one income in Ireland today.
The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform states that this waiting period is necessary because some of these marriages turn out to be fraudulent. A reply I received recently from the Minister indicated that the large majority of these applications are granted, therefore, his argument about fraudulent marriages does not hold up. The small number of so-called fraudulent marriages does not justify the serious difficulty into which these couples are forced during that 16 to 18 months period. Both the United States and Britain, which have much greater problems with so-called fraudulent marriages than we have, allow non-national spouses to work while their applications are being processed and the decisions on their applications are pending. The Minister's statistics demonstrate that there is no reason for us to be stricter than either the United States or Britain. These spouses should be able to avail of the relaxed scheme that currently exists for spouses of highly skilled migrant workers. There should be no discrimination or distinction. People should be treated equally.
I read in The Irish Times that there are plans to grant employment rights to spouses of migrant workers. I look forward to hearing the detail of this proposal, which appeared yesterday. I hope it will apply to spouses of all migrant workers. This is one of the changes I called for earlier in my contribution to this debate. I ask whatever Minister makes the closing statement to Second Stage to give a full account and explanation of what is intended, as reported in yesterday's edition of The Irish Times.
Some aspects of the Bill are welcome. It is good that work permits will now be issued directly to employees, even though giving employees a document is not the same as giving them control over their labour. It is not what we asked for and the Government has acted somewhat cynically in its use of language in this regard. That said it is a positive step as far as it goes. It is also a good thing that information on the employee's rights will be included on the permit. This will make it more difficult for unscrupulous employers — regrettably there are far too many of them in Irish society — to exploit and mistreat their workers, at least those who can understand English or have access to a translator. I do not doubt that some exploitation will continue. We have only to remember the scandalous events of last weekend in which 13 migrant workers, EU nationals, who are here as of right and do not need work permits, were abandoned by their employer on an uninhabited island. That matter has been well aired in the House during recent days.
Incidents such as this will continue until we begin to take seriously the problem of exploitation of migrant workers and put real measures in place to address the problems. It is not enough simply to pass laws prohibiting exploitation without making statutory provision for resources to enforce those laws. I emphasise the need for enforcement given that there is no such provision in this legislation. I ask the Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Michael Ahern, to take that issue on board and have it reflected in the response to Second Stage.
I hope the Minister or Ministers, as is the case this morning will take some of these points into account in their preparation for Committee Stage. It is very difficult for Opposition members sometimes to have positions taken on board adopted by Ministers on Committee Stage. It would be much more agreeable and facilitativeif the proposing Minister were to take on board the points made by Deputies on Second Stage and reflect them in their amendments on Committee Stage. I do not want to go back to my immigrant constituents when the Bill has passed and tell them it took us two and a half years and that this is the best we can do. We can do much better. My purpose in raising the specific points I raised both on the last day we addressed Second Stage and again this morning is that I hope they will be taken on board and reflected by the Minister in the Government's position on Committee Stage.
There are provisions within the Employment Permits Bill which are to be welcomed. However, the Bill needs a good deal of work and my Fine Gael colleagues, particularly Deputy Hogan, will table numerous amendments on Committee Stage. The Bill does not provide sufficient protection for workers. Only last week, off the coast of Dublin, a group of Latvian workers were abandoned without protection. This is an indication of the regard employers have for people who do invaluable work. We are fast gaining the appalling reputation of a country that exploits its foreign migrants. We certainly rely on and need foreign labour, given the growth in the economy, the dependence on small companies and the level of services on which the economy depends from construction to the services sector. The huge growth in the economy is driven by the services sector. Without foreign labour our roads would not be built, our service industries would collapse and our booming economy would be lost. The retail trade and the catering sector in hotels are dependent on such labour. People from inside and outside Europe do a fantastic job in growing the Irish economy, particularly in the area of tourism which is very evident. The foreign workers coming into Ireland could easily find another more hospitable host. I am not saying that is the general rule as there are some good employers who do invaluable work. The biggest asset in any company is not equipment, machinery or property but its investment in personnel. Any company that wants to survive and make long-term profits will invest in personnel as it is their contribution to the bottom line that makes the difference. That is not to mention the shame brought on this country by those who have mistreated foreign workers from sheer greed.
I welcome the provision whereby fines of up to €50,000 or jail terms of five years can be imposed on employers found guilty of exploiting migrant workers. I hope this will act as a deterrent to employers to mistreat migrant workers. The principal change needed in the Bill was a provision whereby workers would hold their own work permits. It is important that they have autonomy and are not subjected or tied by contract to an employer. However, the Bill allows for the employer applying for a permit to continue. That is not good enough and will have to be reconsidered. Foreign workers coming to Ireland should not be ring-fenced to one employer. If they get a better option or are approached by another employer they should be allowed move if they so wish. It gives the employer too much power over what is already a legally vulnerable person. For example, the worker is not able to directly access information on why a permit was granted or refused. When one goes to Davitt House there is a difficulty in getting permits. Because of the level of appeals many people are intimidated. Everybody, regardless of origin, should have power over their own employment. People should be able to own their own permission to work, independent of their employer.
Stories brought to my attention on the abuse of workers' rights are truly frightening. That is not to say all employers behave in this fashion. On the contrary the majority of Irish employers treat migrant workers as fairly as they treat Irish employees. However, there is a minority and we need provisions included that will protect migrant workers from that minority.
Among the many bodies to have criticised the lack of protection measures for migrant workers are IBEC and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. The ICTU has given out a number of case studies to show the awful positions in which migrant workers find themselves, through no fault of their own. One asylum seeker speaks of working on a farm for €2 per hour, picking stones. That is like penal times. There are always exceptional cases. Another man, a chef, started working in an hotel for €2 per hour. I cannot understand how that is tolerated. The employer should be dealt with decisively. It is shameful that we are standing by while this sort of behaviour is taking place. The Small Firms Association, RGDATA and all the representative bodies have a critical role to play and I no have doubt they are playing it. That is important given that the nation has had massive gains in the services sector, which is where the major abuses appear to be as well as in the construction industry.
One of the major tests facing Irish people today is how we treat migrant workers. Until recently it was Irish people who had to look overseas for work but that has completely changed which is welcome. Although this is frequently mentioned in the media and in the House it is not something we seem to fully acknowledge. Irish people may, on occasion, have been mistreated abroad but working abroad also provided much-needed funds to families at home. This happened in the 1970s, 1980s and in earlier decades. In the majority of cases people got work in the UK and were treated well.
We need to recognise how hard it is for migrant workers to leave their own countries and their families to come here. In the same way Irish people found it hard for generations. There should be a level of compassion where families can come here on holiday visas. In certain cases where they have return tickets, validated by funds in a bank, the Government can be heartless in not allowing people to come here to meet family friends, particularly the immediate family.
Another major failing is the way this Bill deals with the families of migrant workers. Why does the Bill make no reference to the spouses and families of workers? When green cards are issued, they should be given to families, not to individuals. However, the Bill only allows for individuals to apply for green cards. With this measure we are seriously limiting the number of quality candidates who come here to work. More importantly we are consigning to a life of misery those who do not come with their families. The Government has missed a huge opportunity.
This legislation will also exacerbate a two-tier system of employment in this State. It allows for a new type of permit to be issued. This permit will be given to skilled staff in mainly high-tech sectors where labour shortages are deemed to exist. These green cards will allow holders the full freedom to seek jobs within specified areas of the economy. While such workers may be able to apply for citizenship after five years in the State, they have no guarantee of being successful. As we are aware, it could take many years before such a decision is made. Such an approach will allow certain immigrants to be seen as more preferable, more welcome by the State and more entitled to rights. This will further exacerbate the problem of exploitation and will also discourage certain workers from coming here.
The tourism and construction industries are two of the biggest employers of migrant workers. As low-fares airlines become even more popular and cheaper, we need to boost the tourism industry further. This does not involve discouraging staff from working here. According to the National Competitiveness Council we are currently ranked 13th out of 16 countries in terms of perceived quality of infrastructure, which has a direct impact on competitiveness and performance. We need to invest heavily in our infrastructure, including road, rail and port development. In Sligo I very much hope the western rail corridor will re-open in the near future. Such developments are vital for the growth of this country and for the quality of life for current and future generations.
In order to build all these projects we need labour. We already import a large proportion of labour in the construction industry where we have developed a bad reputation. More than 40% of migrant workers who come to Ireland are from Poland. Some weeks ago the Polish edition of Newsweek magazine described Ireland as a "living hell" for Polish workers. What would we do if the number of Polish workers coming here were to drop drastically? The percentage of Irish people between the ages of 15 and 34 is approximately 31%. Within 20 years that figure is expected to drop to below 24%. Irish people over the age of 65 currently comprise 11% of the population. Within 20 years that will have doubled to 22%. We are in dire need of foreign labour and we will need it even more in the coming decades.
It appears futile to appeal to the human and compassionate side of the Government. The forward-thinking and logical side of the Government seems to be just as arrogant. We need migrant workers now and we will continue to need them for many decades to come. The level of immigrants coming into this country is already declining. We urgently need legislation that will help both migrant workers and Irish people. We need to learn from the mistakes other countries have made and from successful policies which have worked abroad.
There are no international best practices in managing labour immigration that Ireland could import wholesale. Canada is often cited as an example of a country with a successful immigration system and it is a system worth analysing further. However, immigrant skills there are often not fully availed of. A recent study found that foreign-educated immigrants in Canada earned $2.4 billion less than native-born Canadians with comparable skills. This is because immigrants often end up working in occupations that are below their skill levels. Many well-educated and highly skilled people are coming into this country. We need to use their skills in a way that is beneficial to both parties.
While the Employment Permits Bill is a step in the right direction, it also represents a lost opportunity, as it is not enough in itself. I hope that substantial amendments will be made on Committee Stage.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. While there has been considerable criticism of Ireland's policy for dealing with immigrants, we are beginning to introduce policies in a reasonably coherent fashion. The Employment Permits Bill represents another stage in bringing coherence to the issue of work permits and the integration of new communities into society. Given that the legislation is being discussed during Irish anti-racism in the workplace week and during the second week of riots in France by youths of immigrant origin, it is timely to talk about immigration and work permits. While we are discouraged from mixing the two matters, whether we like it or not a certain link exists. These events, together with events in Skerries in recent days, represent a sobering reminder of what can go wrong if sound policies, both social and economic, are not pursued to integrate immigrants and to ensure that they do not suffer from economic exclusion and social deprivation.
While I want to speak on the specifics of the Bill before us, I also take the opportunity to speak on a number if issues surrounding migrant workers and their families. Everyone agrees that migrant workers have contributed immensely to our economy in recent years. Most economists predict that with projected growth rates of between 4% and 5% in coming years we will continue to need more migrant workers to sustain our economy. We need to look at migrant workers as being equal in every sense to the workers that come from our indigenous community in terms of rights, pay rates and conditions of work.
One of the most serious problems for migrant workers is their inability to obtain permission to bring their immediate families to live with them. They are repeatedly asked to prove they are economically capable of looking after their families. Through sheer hard work some have saved up to €20,000 but are still told they do not satisfy the criteria and will not get permission to bring their families to live with them. I have heard of many such cases in my constituency and I am dealing with a number of them at present. Trying to bring their families here has been a nightmare for some heads of households. They needed to apply many times before being successful. No criteria are defined as to the amount of money required to be on deposit and the granting of permission seems to be totally at the whim of an official. I regard the provisions in the Bill in this respect as extremely positive.
Family reunification is extremely important. It is good for Irish society and extremely good for the family. It is imperative for children to live with both parents. If time allows me I will later outline an issue that came to my attention recently. While it relates more to refugees rather than migrant workers, I may outline what I have in mind.
The present situation does not make sense. Allowing good hard-working people to have their families with them would be of benefit to the country. It would add to the stability of the workers' lives and help them to integrate more into society, something at which they are good. I was at an event in my constituency last night commemorating people who had passed away in the past year. Many of the new Irish community attended, as they wanted to be part of the celebration given that they come from a similar religious background.
We must accept that if we allow migrant workers into the country for our own selfish reasons purely to sustain and expand our economy, we must also extend to them the most basic human rights. They must have the right to move from employer to employer and above all the right to live with their families. This time last year concern was expressed that workers from the new accession countries would flood this community. They have come here in great numbers and are extremely welcome. They have come from particular countries to work in different areas. The Polish workers are almost synonymous with the construction industry and workers from Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania would be more associated with the horticultural industry. They make a huge contribution. There is no point in pretending that a large influx of new workers into any area does not pose problems. The problems range from housing and school provision to policing and must be looked at in the wider context of overall policy.
The Minister is producing a guide to rights in eight or ten languages, which gives a clear indication of the countries of origin of the majority of migrant workers. I call on him to also consider a review of our embassy structures in those countries. Facilities should be put in place in each embassy to vet and issue visas and to issue holiday visas to extended families and friends of migrant workers living here. Controls are necessary, but if we had a visa processing facility in the country of origin, it would ensure that only families and friends would be able to visit and enjoy their time here. I suggest that if some of these controls had been in place this time last year, the exploitation of the Gama workers in my constituency would not have happened to the extent it did. 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 céad míle fáilte, not an interrogation at the point of arrival.
When we invite workers into this country, we must accept that many families will remain, just as the Irish did in the US, England and Australia. While they will be proud of their ethnic background, I hope they will become involved in our culture and sports and that just as the Irish integrated into society in England and the United States, migrant workers and their families will become part and parcel of our society. If we can reciprocate the kind of welcome that was, by and large, accorded to Irish emigrants to the US, Canada and different parts of the United Kingdom, we will find it a rewarding experience.
In passing, I was heartened to see our Minister for Foreign Affairs work so hard in America over the past number of weeks on the issue of the undocumented Irish. Two weeks ago, wearing my hat as Chairman of the British Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body, I was in London to meet the federation of Irish societies and examine some of the issues pertinent to Irish emigrants living in Britain, some for a long time. The issues for them are quite different to the issues for new arrivals in this country. Nevertheless, issues for them, such as repatriation, entitlement to housing here, wider availability of social welfare provision etc. need to be resolved.
I am sure the Bill will help to achieve balance. It is only natural for Irish workers to feel some insecurity when they see action such as that 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. The Government and all parties are doing their best to ensure we avoid this race to the bottom. The Irish Ferries issue highlights this more starkly than most. In this regard, the Bill is essential. Not only must it protect the rights of migrant workers, it must also 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.
I mention in passing the appalling treatment and abandonment of the periwinkle workers on the island off Skerries. The perpetrators, boat owners and everybody else associated with that must be brought to book quickly. There are 24 different agencies dealing with this area, but if no agency has ultimate responsibility, the attitude of pass the parcel will apply. The welfare of such workers must be paramount, whether they are periwinkle or construction workers. Thankfully, because of trade union campaigns construction workers are treated much better now than they were this time last year. I saw some of the accommodation conditions provided for the Gama workers in Ballymun and they were quite harrowing. They were similar to what Irish workers were dealt in the 1950s and 1960s where they had to live in the equivalent of Nissen huts. This legislation will put a stop to all of that.
The Bill will be useless if it is not enforced properly. We must have inspectors to ensure the rights of immigrant workers and to track down and prosecute unscrupulous employers. We should consider recruiting some inspectors from the immigrant community, many of whom have the language and education skills required. There is a perception abroad that immigrants are illiterate and uneducated; they are anything but. I have met some highly skilled and articulate immigrants who are forced to work in situations where their talents are not exploited to the full. Just as the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform has suggested recruiting gardaí from ethnic minorities, we should recruit buildings and workplace inspectors the same way.
There must be constant monitoring by the Department to ensure that quotas are kept at a level in each sector that guarantees the continued expansion of the economy without infringing on the job prospects of indigenous Irish people. This is where problems will arise. There is a perception that we will never get anything right in the area of immigration or refugee policy. However, if we pursue the current policy, the exploitation of workers will not arise to the extent people fear.
The Irish economy needs migrant workers to survive and grow. When the suggestion was made to drop the groceries order, I heard comments that many small shopkeepers now use migrant workers and just pay the minimum wage or a little above it. It is not helpful to associate any industry, whether the retail or any other, with low pay or with particular communities. The success we will have as a community will be if we manage to integrate workers well with our indigenous community. If we ever wanted a lesson in what not to do, we should watch current reports on television covering the rioting throughout France, which I thought had some of the most enlightened social and economic policies of any country. If we go down the road of forced integration, we will have great difficulties.
While it might be of more concern to the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, an issue was brought to my attention recently that is important. It appears that a cohort of people, approximately 400 males whose spouses were here under the parents of an Irish born child rule, have come here since 30 March this year. I have mentioned to some of the agencies dealing with these people that I have come across cases of husbands being made to live under direct provision in a hostel on the south side of this city, while their wives and children live in private accommodation in respect of which rent supplement is paid. If they are to preserve a semblance of family unity, the husbands to whom I have spoken need to leave the hostel very early in the morning — between 6.30 a.m. and 7 a.m. — so that they can accompany their wives and children in travelling to school together as a family. They engage in this charade so that their children think their parents live together in the apartment.
The husbands in question have to sign on at the centre with which we are all familiar before 9.45 a.m. They can return to be with their wives for the rest of they day, but they have to be back in the hostel by 9 p.m. That is no way to deal with people. While I accept that this matter relates to immigration and refugee policy more than it relates to employment policy, I decided to take this opportunity to speak about it nonetheless.
I welcome the Employment Permits Bill 2005, which will add to the body of legislation in this area. It will be good for the Irish economy and it will assist new immigrant workers. Like much of our employment legislation, it will stand the test of time. I hope it will be used as a model of best practice in other countries in the EU and beyond.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the Employment Permits Bill 2005. I agree with Deputy Carey's closing remarks about the many anomalies within the existing immigration legislation. Such matters are more properly categorised as being under the aegis of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform rather than that of the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment. That the spouses and partners of people who have been granted refugee status are obliged to stay in separate accommodation from their families is one such anomaly. The spouses and partners in question may be located in Tralee or somewhere else down the country rather than in Dublin. The Government has made limited attempts to pursue a humanitarian approach to the cases of couples who have to live separately, as well as the cases of fathers who have to live separately from their children. This anomaly needs to be ironed out.
The second anomaly in the system to which I would like to refer relates to those known as "aged out minors". I am sure Deputy Carey is familiar with the cases of such people, many of whom live on the north side of Dublin city. There is a large cohort of aged out minors in the O'Connell School, in particular. I would like to discuss the cases of people who are attending secondary school but are not yet aged out. When they reach the age of 18, they will no longer be subject to the normal education system. Instead, they will be transferred to the jurisdiction of the asylum system, if an appropriate application is made. I understand that approximately 250 people in this country, who came here as orphans without any adult supervision, are in such a state of limbo. When they complete their second level education by sitting the leaving certificate, they will be treated as if they were starting from scratch. I ask the Minister of State, Deputy Michael Ahern, to bring this matter to the attention of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, who should consider such people as being in a separate category. The circumstances of the small number of people to whom I refer could be regularised without having a very strong impact on the system.
As the Minister of State is aware, the purpose of the Bill before the House is to provide a framework for granting work permits to non-nationals to allow them to work in Ireland. Under the Bill, such permits will be granted to people who can fill existing skill shortages. A large number of permits will be granted to people who are high up the skills ladder. The number of permits granted will decrease significantly, however, in the cases of those who are lower down the skills ladder. The permit policy of the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment is entirely based on a migration policy which, as he has said, "targets individuals possessing a high level of scarce skills" and who "can have a significant positive impact on economic performance". The Minister's policy derives from and reflects a position of economic smugness, namely, that a strong economy can and should dictate terms to all those from weaker economies who may wish to work in it.
I would like to speak about a visit I made to Lithuania some weeks ago. It is interesting that there is a daily flight to Vilnius from Dublin. Lithuania is the country of origin of the second largest number of citizens from the ten new accession states who have come to work in Ireland. Some 9% of those who have come to Ireland from other EU member states are Lithuanian. Poland is the only country from which more people have arrived. I presume that people from those countries are most likely to come to Ireland because they are Catholic countries, like Ireland. Latvia also has a significant percentage of Catholics, although the proportion is not as high as in Lithuania. Lithuania's GDP of €12,000 is approximately one quarter of Ireland's GDP of just under €40,000. There was just a handful of passengers on my flight to Vilnius from Dublin. On the flight home from Vilnius, however, most of the seats were packed with bright young Lithuanians in their 20s and 30s. A generation of young Lithuanian people is migrating and perhaps emigrating forever. They have been drawn from a weak economy with few job opportunities to a strong economy with extensive job opportunities.
When I visited a teaching hospital in Vilnius, I caused a degree of merriment when I asked how long people have to wait on accident and emergency waiting lists or on trolleys. In Lithuania, "accident and emergency" means just that — patients are dealt with immediately because waiting lists for accident and emergency services or operations do not exist in Lithuania, a country with a GDP of just €12,000. A weak economy does not mean a weak society. Medical and hospital services in eastern Europe are years ahead of those in Ireland. However, the salaries of general practitioners, university lecturers and consultants are quite similar to each other, at approximately €100 per week. I learnt that most students in Lithuania are learning English, French or a Scandinavian language so that when they qualify, they will have the language skills to work outside their own country.
People like the Minister, Deputy Martin, want to pick and choose the best and brightest individuals from such countries solely as they relate to Ireland's economic needs and skill shortages from time to time. Such people will deem the workers from other countries to be expendable when the job opportunities dry up, so they will repatriate them and cancel their permits. The Minister's policy is one of narrow national economic selfishness. It is based on the German concept of the guest worker, the gastarbeiter. I notice that the Minister of State is shaking his head.
People from the new EU member states in central and eastern Europe do not need work permits to come to work here. The Deputy is trying to confuse the issue.
We will come to that. As I have said, a narrow economic consideration of this country's skills needs is the basic tenet of the Government's policy in this regard. The Government is not operating on the basis of a wider policy framework. The long-standing laissez-faire policy of the western world, which caused Irish citizens to suffer throughout the 20th century, is now being pursued in this country. Such a policy does not involve any consideration of its effects on the countries of origin of migrant workers. I refer to its effects on health and education services, for example, as well as on the overall fabric of the societies in question. Above all, it does not involve any consideration of the circumstances of individuals, who are treated as objects or automatons. If a country is robbed of its young and educated professionals, it will be left to stagnate. Its young and sick people will be deprived of essential services and its old people will be deprived of their pensions. Are we doomed to repeat the flawed policies which ensured that Ireland remained an impoverished country for 150 years, while its citizens built the houses, highways and economies of Great Britain, Australia and the United States? Surely there is a better and more humane way of dealing with this issue. It is important that we regulate our work permit policy, but first and foremost it is necessary that we have a migration policy which deals with the movement of people, not simply the movement of jobs.
Last month, Mr. John Dunne, chief executive of the Chambers of Commerce of Ireland, told the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Enterprise and Employment that the current system treats migrant workers as disposable labour, simply filling a short-term gap. I am sure the Minister has been made aware of that. Individual skilled workers matching individual skill shortages is the wrong way to go. The Minister appears to have relied heavily on the recently published report of the Forfás expert group, Skills Needs in the Irish Economy: The Role of Migration, which promotes this narrow labour market approach. The Minister should rethink his approach. He should learn the lessons from the past and avoid the temptation to think that might means right and that the spoils of the marketplace can be plundered in the same way that the spoils of war were plundered by conquering armies in the past. The Minister's policy is wrong because it is discriminating. It picks and chooses only the brightest and best from countries which can ill afford them to leave. It is nothing more than a recruitment service for temporary positions vacant in Ireland Incorporated. When those scarce skills have been picked from eastern Europe the Minister will go to the rest of the world and pick them from Third World countries.
A totally new and holistic approach is required. It is true that the labour market here will determine our needs in terms of work permits but two things must be done before we start to mix and match. First, the labour market is not an independent, free wheeling mechanism outside our control. It is driven and regulated by State investment, tax incentives and internal and external markets. The €46 billion national development plan approved in 2002, not to speak of the €34 billion transport plan announced last week, have a significant impact on infrastructural projects such as road and bridge building in particular. Extensive tax incentives have a major impact on the building of houses, hotels, nursing homes, and so on. The construction industry is booming and the Government is pouring fuel on the fire.
Paddy Punch, a respected economist, has predicted that if we continue as we are until the year 2025, within a single generation we will have a non-national population of people not born in Ireland amounting to between 25% and 33.3%. Clearly, a small homogeneous country like Ireland cannot receive unlimited numbers of foreign nationals without experiencing severe social strains, the creation of ethnic ghettoes, a rise in antagonism, hostility and downright racism or providing oxygen to right wing parties and individuals. The experience of France which has a non-national population of approximately 11% is a tragic reminder of how a society can fester and explode when it isolates and rejects its migrant workers and immigrants and fails to assimilate them. It is time for the Government to address the lopsided nature of our economic boom, to eliminate the let-it-rip mentality and to plan and chart our economic progress.
Second, we must conduct a regular and comprehensive analysis of the labour market to determine our present and future needs. In reality, the needs of our economy are not to be found in the area of high skills but in the area of low skills. The building industry, the catering industry and agri-business are the main centres of employment in Ireland. Virtually all of these are low skilled sectors that employ manual rather that white collar workers. Therefore, the Minister's sole policy of matching individual employee's skills with individual employer's needs cannot work as a general rule. The broader unskilled labour market requires a pool of workers who can and should be recruited on a much wider and more generous basis where willingness and availability to work are the key criteria. The Minister should revisit the core of this legislation.
An immigration agency should be set up which would allow people to be recruited in different countries and these people would participate in a proper green card system. Potential employees abroad could apply at a consulate or embassy or directly to a Department. Preferential status could be given to applicants who have ethnic communities already rooted in Ireland. A favoured nation approach could be taken that reflects our overseas development aid policy.
We could also favour countries like Argentina that are in dire economic straits, and where there is a large Irish community dating from the 19th century. Argentina constantly bombards the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to allow preferential status in terms of allowing its nationals to come here or to provide rights based on its citizens having great-grandparents from Ireland.
National quotas could be put in place and the successful applicants would receive work visas entitling them to work here for a fixed number of years. If this arrangement was considered satisfactory and there was no criminal involvement, the visas could be renewed and these workers could if they wished be on a pathway to permanent residency, which is denied in the present system. The green card here is not a green card in terms of what it provides. The immigration agency could manage the process. This system would have the further beneficial effect of dealing with the present chaos which besets the asylum process whereby economic refugees have no choice but to apply for asylum in the hope that they will eventually be allowed to remain here and work. This new system would allow for asylum seekers who are fleeing persecution to be processed in a fair, firm, efficient, speedy and transparent manner. The present chaotic system that is the asylum process could be unclogged and streamlined.
Whatever system the Minister ends up with, he must recognise that everything has changed. The situation has changed utterly in terms of the profile of the population in Ireland now and in the future. In the 1990s the majority of immigrants were Irish people repatriating from Britain, the US and Australia. They filled the new job opportunities that presented from the Celtic tiger. Last year that category still remained the highest single profile of immigrants, at approximately 28,000, but it was followed by Poland with 17,000. Furthermore, it is a rapidly decreasing percentage of our new immigrants. Pressures of accommodation present for all immigrants but for non-nationals the problems are much greater.
There is a need for training, language courses, education, awareness and cultural understanding. There is also a need to promote a positive view of immigrants as a boon not a burden, a blessing rather than a curse. State agencies must be proactive in promoting good race relations, equality, cultural diversity and understanding among our own people. A forum must be created for interaction and consultation with the new communities of immigrants to welcome and integrate them. I have never seen any refugee or asylum seeker socialising in a public house and it is difficult to find them participating in the social scene in general. The same is true with immigrant workers coming from eastern Europe. They are not integrated in any way into our social scene. They operate separately from Irish people. We are not doing what we should to integrate immigrants. Multiculturalism and inter-culturalism must be promoted. Those who come to work here, obey the laws and leave should be equally welcome whether they wish to integrate or not. The challenge for us is to develop policies and structures and to manage immigration in a productive and humanitarian matter. It will not be done by the narrow robotic tenets in the Employment Permits Bill. I suggest we establish the status of immigrants who have come to this country over the past ten years. To the best of my knowledge, no survey has been done covering areas such as accommodation, payment, integration, employment, length of time spent here and the number who have put down roots here.
I heard what the Minister said about bringing forward legislation to introduce a proper green card. I then heard the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform come up with his own proposals. I believe he has wandered into the Minister's territory. He said he will allow the reunification of families based on their ability to support themselves. I would have thought that was a decision for the Minister but the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform has promised proposals in the next two weeks or so. Will the spouses of those who have got permits to come to this country be allowed to come here? Many people working here are separated from their families. They cannot get a visa so that family members may visit. It is a big humanitarian issue which is not addressed in this legislation or elsewhere. Perhaps the Minister would take a leaf out of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform's book as he is quick to table amendments to legislation. Rather than introduce another Bill down the line, the Minister should table amendments to this legislation in regard to the green card and family reunification.
I welcome the opportunity to discuss this Bill, to raise some of the issues that concern us in regard to this and other Bills which will be brought before us from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and to reflect on the experience to date in terms of what has happened in the marketplace and what jobs are available and of those who have come to this country to fill these jobs and their experience of living here. There is no doubt the market has changed. There are new demands on employers and on this country to ensure a wider range and a greater pool of skills are available to ensure that, regardless of the job, whether on the bottom or the top rung of the ladder, there is a pool of qualified, skilled workers from which to draw.
Following the accession of the new member states, more than 90,000 people have come here to seek employment. The experience of people arriving on our shores generally leaves much to be desired, particularly of those who have come through the asylum process. I do not want to confuse one process with the other but we must look at both experiences. Having considered the experiences of those in my constituency, I would have to say this Bill is timely because the system in operation is completely out of date and does not reflect what this country is about.
When family members of many people working here on work permits, and who have permission to be in the State to work, turn 18 years of age, they must seek a permit themselves by leaving and returning or they must leave the country. That is causing great distress for families of highly skilled workers. These families have come here to put down roots. Some of them have received poor advice from their country of origin. These people who arrive here, take up employment, make a contribution, decide to stay, more or less, permanently and have their permits renewed face the experience of their families being divided and family members having to leave. I would like that issue addressed in the Bill, that is, that there is continuity for those living here and comfort for family members who wish to stay.
I refer to work permits being issued to employers. In the past two weeks I came across a case in my constituency where an employee, who had been here since 2001, left it to the employer to apply for the permit but the employer did not do so. Having been in the country illegally for 12 months, the employee must regularise his situation for the immigration officer in Kilkenny and ensure the permit is regularised if at all possible. The process must be simplified because we require people to work at all levels of the workforce yet we seem to make it very difficult for them to participate in, enjoy and extend their employment and to bring their families here.
We have attracted quite a number of people to come here to take up employment in the health service. In recent months I have come across cases where people have decided to get married here but their families have been refused visas to enable them to attend. If we are to allow people to come to the State to work, even within this new system, we must ensure there is greater flexibility, whether in the Department of Justice, Equality or Law Reform or the Minister's Department, so that family members who wish to travel here for legitimate reasons, whether for a visit, family occasion or otherwise, are allowed to do so without being put through the wringer, as it were, in regard to their applications. If a person is refused a visa, he or she must go through the process again to ensure his or her appeal is successful. If it is not included in this Bill, I propose a certain amount of flexibility, since we are in a time of change, relative to those positions we have encouraged so that the extended family can enjoy occasional holidays here. Their applications should be dealt with in a more flexible and user-friendly manner, whether by the Minister's Department or the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform.
Deputies referred to the residency and equality Bill which the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform proposes to bring forward later this year. There is an overlap between the Minister's Department and the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform on a regular basis and it would make sense if most of the responsibility fell to one Department. The Minister's Department is the appropriate one to deal with these issues because it has a knowledge of the employee, the employer, the background to the case and so on. It would lighten the load on officials making decisions in these cases if they could refer to the history of the case more quickly and make decisions which would be more in keeping with what the employee is trying to do and what the family is trying to achieve.
The protection of migrant workers is an issue we cannot ignore. It was mentioned in the context of this Bill and I have received much correspondence from different unions in my constituency on the issue. I know various officials and inspectors deal with this issue but we constantly hear the argument that there is a need for more people to be involved in the labour inspectorate to deal with the rights of workers, the pay they receive and to ensure fair play all round.
I refer to students who come here to study. Once they complete their studies, they are asked to leave. In some cases, they are highly qualified. There is significant demand in the economy for graduates in certain disciplines and the Bill should provide flexibility so migrant graduates can remain in the State without having to go through the bureaucratic process again. The Minister should examine the issue because the economy would benefit and he should elaborate on it to increase understanding of the legislation.
Deputy Costello referred to the integration of migrant workers and the need to ensure they become part and parcel of a multicultural society. My experience is contrary to the Deputy's. Perhaps we are more hospitable in Kilkenny but migrant workers have integrated well in the city. Those who are in the workforce are made to feel at home while those who are going through the asylum process are taking it on the chin and are also integrating. However, in both instances, the State would do itself a service if it reduced the bureaucracy involved and treated immigrants in the way other human beings are treated. I welcome the Bill.
I thank all Members for their contributions to a constructive debate. I thank Deputy McGuinness for his remarks and, given that Deputy Hogan is also present, I can confirm the capacity of Kilkenny people to help outsiders to integrate in the city. Many Cork people have migrated to Kilkenny and have been well absorbed into the community. If Cork people can be absorbed that well by Kilkenny city, it speaks volumes.
The integration issue is important. As transformation takes place and Ireland becomes a country of net immigration as opposed to emigration, a significant challenge is presented to put in place the infrastructure and mechanisms to ensure proper integration of migrant workers in our communities. My Department will shortly launch an initiative with FÁS on the integration of migrant employees in the workplace through the provision of language training and the dissemination of relevant materials to such workers. Broader initiatives will be taken by other Departments, for example, in the area of education, to ensure proper integration.
Many issues were raised by Members. The key issue is that the Bill represents another significant advance in economic migration policy. It provides a flexible framework, which will enable us to adapt and refine our policies going forward. It is buttressed by the economic migration policy document published by the expert skills groups, which examined a range of issues in this regard. The majority of low skill needs should be met by the EU labour market, which comprises more than 250 million people. Ireland is a regional market in a 25 member state economy and that reality must be recognised. This has an impact on attracting migrant labour from outside the EU. More than 100,000 people from outside the EU have worked in Ireland at some stage over the past 18 months.
Our first priority is to upskill our workforce to enable people to avail of the increased opportunities that continue to be created through foreign direct investment and the growth of indigenous companies. We are working with FÁS and the education partners to ramp up qualifications and increase the overall skills of the population.
Employees as well as employers can apply for work permits under the legislation. It will be vacancy driven but the system will not be based on quotas or points. There are advantages and disadvantages to quota systems while the disadvantages of the points systems outweigh the advantages. Quota systems can be inflexible and complex and questions arise regarding how quotas are determined, what are the optimum levels and so on while points systems are more transparent and predictable but they are also complex to design and administer.
The green card system embraces the best aspects of the US green card system and other quotas and points systems without taking on their disadvantages. We have examined systems in different countries and we have embraced their best aspects. The proposed green card system will provide a pathway to citizenship and discussions in this regard were held with the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform prior to the publication of the legislation. Last March the Government agreed the establishment on a non-statutory basis of a new naturalisation and immigration service in the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform to oversee a single admissions procedure for immigration. The service deals with the admission of non-nationals to the State, asylum applications, the management and processing of applications for legal residency, the naturalisation process and the enforcement elements of this programme. My Department has established a virtual link between its information systems and those of the immigration service. However, my Department will continue to be responsible for economic migration policy and the granting of work and green card permits. That synergy is ongoing and the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform will introduce legislative proposals regarding family reunification.
When the Bill was published and the green card system was announced, the Government stated that once an individual was granted a green card permit, family reunification would be permitted. I understand the comments of Members in this respect because all of us have met non-nationals who have been in the State for two or three years without their families. That can be distressing and disturbing. The green card system will extend to a larger cohort of people. A similar provision applied under the work visa authorisation scheme, which dealt with a limited section of the migrant worker population. I have listened to the comments of Members and the green card system will provide for family reunification and a pathway to citizenship. The two-year provision also applies in the US. Nobody will have a carte blanche once he or she is granted a green card permit. If permit holders behave well, obey the laws of the State and so on, they can look forward to permanent residency and citizenship. It is important to distinguish between green card permits and work permits, which address temporary shortages in the labour market.
The Bill also represents a significant advance in the protections for migrant workers. However, the Government is conscious of the need to be vigilant in the area of labour law compliance. We are open to significant engagement with the trade union movement and other social partners regarding the best modalities for labour law compliance and enforcement and to ensure migrant workers are not exploited. Recent events have caused us disquiet and I, therefore, sanctioned an increase in the number of labour inspectors to 31. All the posts should be filled by the end of the month with the additional inspectors concentrating on sectors in which many migrant workers are employed.
With regard to future initiatives, the labour inspectorate prepared a discussion document on its mandate and resourcing. It was circulated to the social partners in January 2005 with the purpose of stimulating debate and signalling that fundamental changes in enforcement of employment rights compliance should be considered. The ultimate objective is the formulation of a set of recommendations for Government from various possibilities. One proposal is that a strategic programme of education and information dissemination regarding employment rights be undertaken from early next year. The intention is that general communications media be used to ensure delivery to the target audiences. It is intended that the programme would meet the demand to target messages to workers in specific sectors and address the challenge of informing people who do not speak English as an effective working language.
I have also stated that the Government is open to amendments on Committee Stage. We will listen carefully to the arguments advanced. In my initial speech I indicated that the Government will make amendments on Committee Stage. We will examine the case of students and whether it requires an amendment. The economic migration policy published by the expert skills group puts forward the view that students who have studied here at undergraduate and postgraduate level in our third level colleges should be allowed to remain in this country and make a contribution to economic life. They may have spent up to six years here and we should take the sensible approach and facilitate their contribution without their having to leave the country. Scotland has undertaken an initiative of this kind and I am keen to do something similar, subject to detailed examination. I hope to propose an amendment on Committee Stage if there is not the flexibility in the Bill to facilitate this. Deputy McGuinness raised this point and it is a measure to which I am favourably disposed.
I thank the Deputies for their contribution and look forward to an informed, constructive discussion on Committee Stage.