Thursday, 1 April 2021
Employment Permits (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2021: First Stage
That leave be granted to introduce a Bill entitled an Act to provide for the protection of certain foreign nationals in employment in the State and for that purpose to amend the Employment Permits Act 2003,the Employment Permits Act 2006, the Protection of Employees (Employers' Insolvency) Act 1984 and the Employment Permits Regulations 2017 and to provide for related matters.
I thank SIPTU and Migrant Rights Centre Ireland for their support for this Bill and for their work, along with others, in exposing the abuses and exploitation of migrant workers, and meat factory workers in particular, which this Bill seeks to address. I also thank my colleague, Deputy Bríd Smith, and Mr. Owen McCormack, who put a lot of work into developing this Bill. It is shameful that 90% of meat factory workers still, to this day, do not have access to sick pay. It was this time last year when I first raised in the Dáil how Covid-19 was being allowed to rip through the meat plants. The Government rallied to defend the beef barons, accusing me of smearing those companies. It took a sustained campaign by People Before Profit, the unions and others to get the State even to inspect the plants and discover that there was, in fact, a serious issue. The Government still prefers to ignore the clear exploitation and abuse of workers in this sector, especially migrant workers who are here on general employment permits. Many people feel they have to go to work, even with Covid symptoms, partially out of fear for their jobs and partially because they simply could not afford not to work. Despite a lot of talk, the Government has still not done anything about this, forcing People Before Profit to step in with this Bill to begin to address the issue. Our Bill would require the beef barons to provide sick pay by making it a condition for work permits. It would be an important step towards providing sick pay for all.
Yesterday, the Taoiseach, incredibly, told me that the meat plants had already "been dealt with", as if it was now under control. The truth is that the situation in the meat plants today is alarming. This morning's Health Protection Surveillance Centre, HPSC, report shows 28 open outbreaks across the 56 meat plants in the State and that six meat factory workers currently are hospitalised. Thousands of meat workers have caught this virus. Dozens have been hospitalised and some have ended up in intensive care units. The figures released do not say whether any have lost their lives but we know that many will suffer with the long-term effects for years to come. Yet the Taoiseach claimed the issue has been dealt with, that it is old news. It is clear which side he is on.
One objection I would expect to hear from the corporate lobbyists is the claim that cannot afford to pay sick pay. Let us be clear, the beef barons could well afford to pay their workers sick pay, they just do not want to. A recent report stated "Nine companies in the Goodman Group [ABP] made a profit of €170 million last year and had assets worth more than €3.45 billion". The bulk of the profits were booked in Luxembourg and were largely untaxed. Moy Park, in 2019, had a turnover of €1.8 billion and profits of €81.5 million. Dawn Meats had a turnover of €2.1 billion. Kepak had a turnover of €1.5 billion. The list goes on. These are massive companies making major profits, yet they are refusing to pay sick pay and the Government refuses to make them. It will, ultimately, take a militant labour movement that forces changes whereby workers become organised and assert themselves. This Bill shows what Deputies can do to support workers. I encourage others to join People Before Profit in supporting and promoting this Bill to force the bosses to pay sick pay.
I thank the Office of Parliamentary Legal Advisers, OPLA, for its help in guiding us through these measures.
Employment permit legislation is very complex, difficult and labyrinthine, deliberately so, because it speaks of the State's attitude to migrant workers, which in many cases is one of barely concealed contempt. Getting a permit, renewing a permit and surviving here is not made easy by the State or by many employers who are willing to use the labour of migrant workers but are unwilling to pay them decent wages or provide them with decent conditions. The entire area needs root-and-branch reform and workers must be at the forefront in that regard. I hope to see them organised in great numbers in trade unions in the coming years and joining with Irish workers in demanding workers rights and decent livelihoods.
The intent behind the Bill is to try to address an imbalance. It will allow a number of other measures beyond those that Deputy Paul Murphy outlined. It will allow workers the right to change employers within the first year that they arrive here and will strip employers of the huge power they hold over migrant workers. Second, it will give migrant workers access to the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, where their employment permit is not valid. We have had cases of workers being rewarded up to €90,000 for unpaid and exploitative labour by the WRC, but the money could not be paid because of a loophole stating that if a work permit is invalid, the individual cannot receive the reward. The Bill attempts to address that matter.
I thank the staff in my office, but I also thank SIPTU for its participation and advice, the Independent Workers Union of Ireland and Migrant Rights Centre Ireland. Their help was invaluable. We want to see the Bill passed so it will address and strengthen the rights of these and other vulnerable migrant workers.