Seanad debates

Wednesday, 13 April 2005

Rights of Migrant Workers: Statements.

 

11:00 am

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the opportunity to address the Seanad on an issue which is helping to drive Ireland's social and economic development. Immigration, which is and will continue to be essential to the development and prosperity of Irish society, is a relatively new phenomenon in this country. We have known the other side of the coin for generations. I want to send a clear message that people who come to Ireland seeking employment are welcome. It is a shared expectation on the part of Ireland, its people and its new arrivals that the experience will be beneficial to all. Ireland needs to overcome its skills shortages if it is to deliver the essential services and infrastructure which are demanded and expected and will benefit everyone.

I am heartened when I hear of the excellent welcome afforded to those who have come to this country to participate in and contribute to Ireland's vibrant society. I am deeply disappointed when I hear of instances in which the expectations of such people are not met for any of a variety of reasons. It infuriates me when I hear of instances of deliberate mistreatment, which do a great disservice to Ireland and its people. The despicable people who engage in such practices prey on the inexperienced and vulnerable and have no place in our business community or society. The business community does not condone such sharp practices. Although those who work with migrant workers and the Irish people as a whole do not condone such practices, they continue to occur. I commend those who help migrant workers to settle and integrate. I commend them on the support they provide in interacting on behalf of migrant workers. I urge work colleagues and neighbours of migrant workers to extend the hand of friendship and to offer support. It will be an enriching experience for everyone involved.

I am satisfied that the Irish experience of the vast majority of migrant workers is positive. Many extended families in Europe and further afield are aware of the Irish experience of their loved ones and we are all saddened when we hear of instances where people are mistreated and can only imagine the distress that causes for friends and families. We all appreciate the harm it does to Ireland's reputation abroad.

I am aware of the keen attention which this House pays to topical issues of concern to the Irish people, the business sector and, indeed, migrant workers. I would like to update the Oireachtas about an allegation made by Deputy Joe Higgins in Dáil Éireann on 8 February 2005 to the effect that Gama Construction Ireland demands excessive hours of its workers and pays between €2 and €3 per hour. I described allegations such as this as infuriating in that, if true, they besmirch the good name of Ireland and Irish employers at home and abroad. I immediately asked the duly authorised labour inspectorate in my Department to open an investigation and this it did the following day. It conducted a thorough investigation of the allegations and where it encountered issues outside the immediate scope of the allegations, it made limited observations and directed issues to the attention of other regulatory bodies that could have a role to play.

The inspectorate brought its key values of independence, fairness, thoroughness and speed to its investigation. It consulted widely with current and former workers, industry associations, trade unions, the company's professional advisors and secured the co-operation of Gama itself to the process. Gama also gave a series of assurances to the labour inspectorate that no Turkish workers would be relocated or repatriated without reference to the inspectorate until further notice.

The investigation started from the premise shared by many parties — my Department, the unions and the industry associations — that Gama was a good employer. This shared belief was based upon assurances given by Gama, its auditors and its legal advisor to all the above parties and the media until recently that Gama pays the going rate and was fully compliant with employment rights legislation. The going rate, also called the joint industrial council norm for skilled construction workers, is €16.20 per hour, whereas the only legally enforceable rates are those in the registered employment agreement, which range from €8.09 per hour for craftsmen to €7.36 for construction operatives, grade 1. While the statutory minimum rates are not in line with the going rate, it is a matter for the employers and unions to review the position — this process has been stalled since 1998 by reason of a judicial review.

All employees in Ireland are covered by Irish employment rights legislation and to avoid any doubt, section 20 of the Protection of Employees (Part-Time Work) Act 2001 grants that coverage, particularly to workers posted to Ireland, irrespective of nationality or place of residence. I received a report of the investigation from the labour inspectorate into alleged breaches of employment rights in the sites of Gama Construction Ireland and other companies on 6 April. On receipt of the report I immediately made known my wish to publish it as soon as possible but I am currently prevented from doing so pending the resolution of High Court proceedings initiated by Gama.

Having read and considered the report, I fully accept and endorse the recommendations which are addressed to my Department, other Departments, the Revenue Commissioners, the Garda Síochána and a range of regulatory bodies. It is my intention to forward the report to these bodies to enable them to look into the consequences arising. It is my objective, however, that all workers in Gama, past and present, are given their due entitlements and that their terms and conditions are in accordance with the law and are honoured in full.

The labour inspectorate is continuing its investigations and if breaches of employment legislation are found they will be enforced in full. I sought and obtained assurances from Gama that no reassignment or repatriation of workers would take place without prior consultation with the labour inspectorate. I acknowledge that Gama has to date honoured its commitments in this regard.

I met yesterday with ICTU, SIPTU and the Construction Industry Federation, which all have concerns about these issues. I want to see a partnership approach developed to oversee compliance and restitution and to ensure instances such as this do not re-occur. I intend to meet with Gama senior management and have opened contact with the Dutch bank where it is maintained the Gama workers have their accounts.

Yesterday I also strengthened the labour inspectorate by sanctioning an increase of 50% in the number of inspectors assigned. These additional inspectors will place a specific emphasis on sectors where migrant workers are concentrated. The additional inspectors will strengthen the labour inspectorate's capacity to ensure that workers in these sectors receive their entitlements under employment rights legislation. This expansion of the inspectorate will bring the authorised number of labour inspectors to 31 and they, together with support staff and their colleagues in the employment rights information unit and the prosecution unit, make up an integrated group dedicated to ensuring people get their entitlements.

For the benefit of the House, I should explain the policy framework regarding the admission of migrant workers to this country. Consistent with international practice, our policy is based on economic needs and seeks to address identified labour and skills shortages. Obviously, our policy must respond to a constantly changing environment. Our labour market needs are continually changing as our economic performance changes.

For many centuries Ireland was a country of net emigration, with large numbers of young people emigrating to find employment overseas. However, this all changed in the 1990s, when rapid economic growth transformed the country from one of net emigration to one of net immigration. From 1997 to 2000, in particular, Ireland experienced an exceptional level of growth. This led to an enormous growth in jobs and employment. Since 1997, the numbers in employment have grown by nearly 450,000. At the same time, the number unemployed has fallen by almost 80,000, with the unemployment rate falling from 10.4% to 4.7%, about half the EU 25 average. The number of long-term unemployed has dropped by almost 60,000 from 5.5% to 1.4% per cent, about one third of the EU 25 average.

As a consequence, labour and skill shortages have become apparent, necessitating the recruitment of large numbers of overseas workers, principally from the European Union, but also from a wide geographic spread of destinations. The scale of this is evident in the numbers of work permits issued to nationals from outside the European Economic Area in the past number of years. The EEA consists of the 25 EU member states, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and for this purpose, Switzerland. In 1999, 6,000 work permits were issued. By 2003, this figure had increased to 48,000. A total of 110,000 non-EEA nationals entered employment in the State in the last five years.

Our future economic outlook is good. The Irish economy is forecast to grow in 2005 by 4.7% in GNP terms, twice the rate of the EU-25 average. This positive situation has been recognised by the European Commission which, in its commentary on Ireland's stability and growth pact 2005-07, notes our strong growth and sound public finances. The good economic outlook means that a considerable future expansion of employment and demand for labour is also expected. This will mean increasing the numbers in our labour force. Given the falling numbers of young people coming into the labour market, there will be a need to mobilise labour supplies from other sources, including from other countries.

Not only must we supply the numbers of workers we need, we must also ensure that we supply the skills that our labour market needs in the future. The enterprise action plan published in March included the development of a skills-based immigration policy as a key task. This will support enterprise development as part of the strategy to move the economy to one which is both knowledge-based and innovation-driven. Forfás and the expert group for future skills needs are currently engaged in research and consultations on the detailed issues entailed in the implementation of this policy, including the types of skills for which permits should be granted. This work will form the basis for a policy paper to be published by my Department later this year.

My Department is also currently in the final stages of preparation of a new employment permits Bill, which will govern the issue of all employment permits for nationals from outside the European Economic Area. The Bill will put the existing employment permit administrative arrangements on a legislative footing and thereby provide greater accountability and transparency. The Bill allows for a more managed economic migration policy and enables the introduction of a green card system for highly skilled migrant workers. It will also enshrine a number of protections for migrant workers. Employers will be prohibited from deducting from the remuneration of migrant workers any costs associated with their recruitment and from retaining personal documents belonging to migrant workers.

Our economic migration policy must change as Europe changes. In advance of the recent enlargement of the EU, the Government, in an expression of solidarity with the new member states, decided to allow full freedom of movement to citizens of those states from the date of their accession to the EU on 1 May 2004. In this context, the Government decided that any future labour shortages should in the first instance be met from within the EEA, particularly as there are approximately 19 million people currently unemployed in the EU.

A significant proportion of work permits in recent years were granted to citizens of the new member states who no longer require work permits. This has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of work permits issued since 1 May 2004. The number of new work permits issued in 2003 was 22,000 while the corresponding figure for 2004 was 10,000.

It might be useful to the House to describe the manner in which the current employment permits system operates. Nationals from any state other than those in the EEA must obtain an employment permit before entering employment in the State. Generally, employment permits take one of the four forms of work permit which are work authorisation or visa, inter-company transfer authorisation or permit to facilitate services contracts. The work permits system is the main vehicle for nationals from outside the EEA to enter the Irish labour market. Work permits are issued to employers who employ non-EEA nationals to fill specific vacancies they have been unable to fill from within the area. An employer is required to undertake an economic needs test which requires it to advertise for four weeks the employment position it is proposed to fill with Ireland's national employment service, FÁS, before it is permitted to offer the job to a non-EEA national.

Work permits are issued for a maximum of one year but can be renewed annually. While the criticism has been made that the issuing of work permits to employers leaves an employee open to abuse, it should be noted that a new work permit can be issued to an employee's new employer if he or she changes jobs for genuine reasons. The second type of work permit is a working visa or work authorisation. Such permits were introduced to provide greater access to the labour market for non-EEA workers in possession of skills in very short supply in the economy. The relevant skills categories include those of health and medicine professionals, information computing technology workers and professional construction qualifications including, for example, those of architects, engineers and town planners.

Unlike work permits, working visas and work authorisations are issued to individuals rather than to their employers. Working visas apply to residents of states in respect of which a visa is required upon entry into Ireland and work authorisations to states in respect of which a visa is not. The scheme is operated through Irish embassies throughout the world. Recipients of working visas or work authorisations are free to change employment within the economic sector of their visa. In addition, working visas and authorisations are granted for two years and can be renewed thereafter by the immigration authorities. Over 1,300 working visas and work authorisations were issued in 2004.

The third type of employment permit involves the inter-company transfer facility. This allows companies to bring in senior managers or skilled staff from an overseas branch of a multinational corporation to the Irish branch of the same organisation to fulfil a specific and short-term role. As such work is by definition temporary, employers are not required to advertise the positions in question with FÁS. Since October 2002, inter­company transfer concessions have been granted on a case-by-case basis.

I would like to provide the House with up-to-the-minute information on my work on the position of Gama workers in Ireland. Members will understand if there is some disjointedness between these and my earlier comments. Contact with the Dutch institution concerned, Finansbank, was formalised this morning when the Irish ambassador to the Netherlands contacted it to seek clarifications on behalf of the workers. I spoke with representatives of the bank this morning to discuss the putting in place of a mechanism to facilitate immediate access of individuals to their account balances. I was provided with absolute assurances and guarantees that all moneys held in the relevant accounts in Finansbank in the Netherlands will be given to the workers concerned. I will make a further statement on the matter today. I came to the House fresh from my telephone call with the bank, which is why I was late to arrive. Apparently, some workers have provided instructions on their accounts and, apparently, a substantial volume of instructions have issued from Gama on behalf of workers.

I will meet with the workers and their representatives this evening when I will be in a position to provide them with the latest information I have. I have also arranged to meet with senior management from Gama International to apprise them of my serious concerns about the operations of its subsidiary in Ireland. My officials will maintain contact with Finansbank today and a member of the Department's labour inspectorate will visit it in the Netherlands accompanied by a small delegation of workers' representatives to establish a mechanism which assures access to accounts by workers and the honouring of instructions they make on the moneys. The Department will officially monitor the mechanism in conjunction with workers' representatives. We met with SIPTU and ICTU yesterday and they asked for such a mechanism to be put in place. As Members will be aware, Deputy Joe Higgins sought similar reassurances in the Dáil on behalf of the workers he has represented over recent weeks.

While I am constrained by court order from commenting on the inspector's report, we are robustly submitting the Department's case for the lifting of the injunction from Gama Turkey. If we succeed, I will be enabled to publish the report to the House. It is a matter of substantial public interest to publish the report and there is a strong expectation within both Houses that it should be. The Department was served with notice of a further injunction against publication from Gama Ireland. I have instructed that this injunction should also be opposed vigorously.

I hope I have succeeded in providing the House with an insight into my approach to migrant workers and clarifying Government policy in the detail required to inform the debate on this important issue. I look forward, a Chathaoirligh, to the debate, although I hope it will be appreciated that other Ministers will also attend as I must continue to address the matter in question for the rest of the day.

Photo of Paul CoghlanPaul Coghlan (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister and his final comments on how strenuously he will oppose today's court action by Gama. Hopefully, the Minister will win and both injunctions will be lifted. While I accept everything the Minister stated about his and his officials' contacts with the Finansbank in the Netherlands, do we know for certain that the moneys in the names of the workers are in the correct and appropriate amounts? I would like the Minister to reassure me on that point in his reply.

The Fine Gael Party believes the recent revelations of the shabby treatment of migrant workers in Ireland disgraces us all and that all of those involved should be ashamed of themselves. That exploitation based simply on nationality or even the colour of one's skin could thrive in 2005 is a sad indictment of our circumstances. Recent revelations of the exploitation of foreign workers in Gama Construction and similar documented cases are shameful. I commend the good work of our Dáil colleague, Deputy Joe Higgins, in seeking to address the plight of the Gama workers as well as the follow-on work of the Minister. It is my sincere hope that the labour inspectorate of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment will investigate, prosecute and punish those responsible for any impropriety, exploitation and fraud which has taken place.

If any good is to come of this matter and the recent events surrounding the deportation of young Olunkunle Eluhanla, it should be the emergence at last of a proper rational debate on immigration and a proper, thought-out Government policy on the matter. Fine Gael contends that Ireland should be honest about the need for immigration, the benefits it can bring and the repercussions of failing to welcome inward migration. It is a simple fact that Ireland will need to import the skills required to ensure that our economy remains a world-class player. The Minister has said as much. The economy has the potential to post cumulative growth of 45% between now and 2016, a performance which will be fuelled by immigration according to a new commentary from Goodbody Stockbrokers. Growth of this magnitude would see Ireland's economy expand at more than twice the average eurozone rate over the next decade. Goodbodys went as far as to say that inward migration will be vital to achieve the outlined trend in growth.

It is against this background that we have seen the absurd farce of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform deporting and then bringing back a leaving certificate student while construction companies pay migrant workers €1 an hour to build this country. As a public representative, I am tired of this phony debate and the constant problematising of the immigration issue. While it may be politically astute to give the nod to the baser instincts of some sections of the electorate, it is foolish to think the economy can survive without a flow of migrant labour to staff the service and construction industries.

Such was the level of ridiculousness in the recent deportations that the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform did not himself seem to know the law. Section 3 of the Immigration Act 1999 requires the Minister to consider personally representations made on the granting of permission to remain in Ireland. Furthermore, the Act sets out 11 criteria to which the Minister must have regard in determining whether to sign a deportation order. Essentially, he is exercising a quasi-judicial function in giving consideration to these statutory criteria. The normal protocol of ministerial delegation, as cited in the Dáil by the Minister, does not apply in respect of the exercise of powers on issues of significant importance where the Minister is required to act personally. It now appears that the Minister, Deputy McDowell, failed to carry out his obligations under the Act. While junior officials considered the issues in question, the Act puts the onus on the Minister to examine the case before making a deportation order. In his statements, the Minister used the formula that the case "was examined" but failed to state by whom.

The Government needs to adopt an integrated, planned immigration policy. Immigration policy is shaped by political kite-flying like the recent news on a green card system. That might get a Minister through a news slot but does not provide an alternative. Things are happening too slowly. The sight of long queues at the immigration centre in Burgh Quay in Dublin is not fitting for a modern nation. The continued limbo in which many immigrants find themselves, which allows exploitation to thrive is causing misery and it is damaging the economy.

Let us be up-front and honest. Let us establish the economic case for immigration, set a level and put in place a sensible, compassionate immigration policy that will allow the engine of the economy continue to run. It is essential to reduce waiting times for the assessment of applications to allow people to work and contribute to their new society, and avoid simply assigning them to the human scrap-heap until some official manages to get round to their application form.

In its latest quarterly report, the Economic and Social Research Institute has called for immigrants to be given the fullest opportunity to contribute to the economy. In its spring economic commentary this Government-backed body has predicted growth in the economy of 5.7% this year and a similar figure for next year. According to the main author of the bulletin, Mr. Danny McCoy, research shows immigrants in Ireland are not using their educational and other qualifications to their full potential, with many holding jobs for which they are overqualified. The ESRI believes that if more migrants worked in occupations that utilised their educational abilities it would increase real gross national disposable income by 1% rather than the 0.4% currently attributed to them.

As a modern European nation, it is time to say to ourselves that an economic imperative exists for us to facilitate migrant workers in addition to a moral duty for us to accept immigrants. The ESRI paints a picture of educated teachers, doctors and lawyers arriving here in an effort to improve their lot and failing to have their expertise recognised and valued. It is the case, for example, that a former television news editor, responsible for the main Venezuelan TV news, is currently working in a sandwich bar in Dublin.

I implore the Government to establish a proper immigration system, one which takes into account skills shortages and the net benefit inward migration can have which would uphold our commitments as a wealthy, economically advanced nation. This is one of the most pressing social and economic problems we face. I say to those inside and outside these Houses who frown on such an agenda that without immigration, who will build our roads, nurse the sick, operate on us, drive our buses, serve us in restaurants? In short, who will keep this country running? It will not be Irish people alone because there are not enough of us.

These are challenging times. Our country is changing every day. Immigration is a necessity, but so also is proper respect and dignity for our immigrant population. Decent pay and decent conditions is all they ask. Let us hope they do not have to ask for too much longer. I look forward to the Minister's response.

Tom Morrissey (Progressive Democrats)
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I thank Senator Leyden for giving me his speaking slot. I reassure him that we are not the major partner in Government.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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We are partners.

Tom Morrissey (Progressive Democrats)
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I congratulate the Minister on the approach he has taken to the Gama issue. This matter must be examined. The report must be published in the interests of fairness to those employers who have employed migrant workers here and to those migrant workers who are providing an invaluable service. There is no doubt that rogue employers exist.

The one aspect of this matter which puzzles me — I hope it will be covered in the report — is that a process has to be followed when an employer wishes to recruit a migrant worker. Section 4, page 2 of the permit form relates to salary or gross wages per week. The form states that our national minimum wage should be taken into account. I want to see copies of the permits issued by the Department.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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Hear, hear.

12:00 pm

Tom Morrissey (Progressive Democrats)
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I want to see the figure that was entered for salary. It is only when we learn that figure that we will know the amount to which Gama workers are entitled, and what balance should be in these infamous accounts.

I do not know of any small or medium-sized Irish company which has also engaged in this practice and I would be amazed if there are other people engaging in it. If they are doing so, it would have to be with the knowledge of the employee.

We bring migrant workers here who, through no fault of their own, have a big disadvantage in terms of language, especially those coming from non-EEA countries. I have witnessed this on a personal basis. We are dependent on these people, and a recent ESRI report proves that we will be dependent on migrant workers for many years to come. As a caring nation it behoves us to ensure that we integrate legal migrant workers who are assisting the State. In many cases, the only way these people interact is by going to Lidl or Aldi, primarily on Saturdays and Sundays, where they can speak their own language or meet friends from other countries.

In a typical small company, such as mine, it is difficult for employers to give advice or proper instructions about machinery. It is also difficult for migrant workers to explain themselves. Some form of State assistance must be made available. It does not have to cost a great deal of money. Language training would help these people to integrate and access State services. It is not good enough that migrant workers would have to go to the local VEC to access language courses. I have spoken to some of these people who are the best people in this country. They have told me they do not see any point in watching television on Saturdays and Sundays. They would rather do something productive. They would not mind going to language courses at the weekend, even at their own expense. That is something we must examine.

I welcome the Minister's reference to permit renewals. In some cases permits might not be renewed after a year, through no fault of the employer. The reason may be due to a downturn in business or some such matter. These people are living here and they have PPS numbers yet they are often forced to go on the run when their permits are not renewed. It is not easy to get another work permit as, technically, people have to go to their home country where the entire process has to begin all over again. Some recognition must be given to a system which allows those people to seek further permits to stay in the country with other employers, without having to go through the laborious process of advertising through FÁS and the workers having to return to their home countries prior to being re-employed in Ireland. Before the Minister departs, I ask him to pay heed to this.

It is appropriate that statements should be taken on the rights of migrant workers in the House today. A cursory glance either at the media or the streets outside the House or the Four Courts will yield sufficient evidence that problems exist in this area, which we have a duty to address. A woman from the Philippines was hired to work on a ship for just over €1 an hour. On the streets of Dublin, Turkish workers protest that money belonging to them has been paid into Dutch bank accounts without their knowledge. I am sure the House will join with me in hoping that the findings of that investigation will soon be made public.

Notwithstanding these public cases, I want to bring some personal experience to the debate. Media reports of the ill-treatment of migrant workers are worrying, but they tend to focus on the extreme end of such treatment. At a much lower level, migrant workers daily fail to receive the treatment a caring society should offer. I employ migrant workers, for example, from the Ukraine. My experience is that migrant workers are not being treated by this society in a most caring way. One key issue is the lack of language skills. Migrant workers typically have poor English, through no fault of their own. This is not merely a handicap to them in the workplace but is also a barrier to greater integration within the wider society. The House well knows that such integration is imperative for the well-being of migrant workers and society, but the language skill issue is not being properly tackled. It is not enough to say that the appropriate forms and paperwork are being translated. Neither is it sufficient to point them in the direction of the local VEC. We must do more. Specific, inexpensive and flexible language programmes for migrant workers should be available. This is vital for their integration and social well-being. We cannot have a situation where the sum total of migrant worker interaction takes place on Saturdays and Sundays at Lidl or Aldi.

Another lesson from my experience is the State's requirements as regards payment rates for these workers. That is why I bring this form to the attention of the Minister. There should be a mechanism on this form which would require bogus employers to return it once a year to the Department. This would greatly reduce the work of the inspectors and obviate the need for them to go out to these 110 employees. I fail to see why there should not be a form that an employer must return at the end of every year, showing the number of people on his or her books, the rates of pay, the PPS numbers and indicating whether people are still employed. In many cases work runs out and while a permit might be valid for a year, it does not ensure 12 months employment.

Some of these people may be in the country several years, where the work permits have run out, but they have not gone home. They work long hours, up to 100 hours a week, for example, in the security industry. In one specific case I know of a non-national without a permit who is working over 100 hours, making great money. They call Irish money "gold". The situation is that although such people are not regularised, they are contributing by working in this society. They do not cost the State money and neither are they looking for free accommodation or services. They are afraid to go to the doctor. They are afraid, if they do something wrong, that the Garda might pick them up and bring them to airport immediately.

I would urge an amnesty for some of those people from Moldova or Romania who have been working here for a number of years. Employers find themselves facing a €250,000 fine for employing such people. Yet if they let them go, employers know well that they cannot recruit local Irish labour because of the employment shortages. If they have to go through the whole rigmarole of advertising through FÁS for four weeks and a process of recruitment the only people, from my experience, who will reply to the advertisements will be workers from Moldova, Lithuania and Latvia through agencies in those countries. One will probably only get one Irish person to apply for any task in this country at the moment over a three-week advertising period. That is the experience of Irish employers, yet there are people in Ireland who are effectively on the run, and I believe this situation should be regularised. People are sending money home because they are afraid to bank it here. If they were able to bank their money, they could buy their own homes and stay in this country. They are an advantage to rather than a drain on our society.

It is time we recognised that changes must be made in our permit system sooner rather than later. Migrant workers are among the most hard working honest people that I know. They do not miss Mondays. They work 39 hours a week and want to work overtime, including Saturdays and Sundays. This may be their land of opportunity, but it is also to the benefit of Irish society. The figures show how they have been employed over the years and how the economy depends on them. I call on the Minister to make the necessary changes to the permit system sooner rather than later.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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I wish to share my time with Senator Henry, with the permission of the House.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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She has asked for three minutes and perhaps the Leas-Chathaoirleach will indicate the time available if I have not concluded by then.

It is a privilege to listen to people such as my colleague, Senator Morrissey. This is what the Seanad is all about, where people with direct practical experience of a situation with political implications may lay this before the House. I hope that the Minister and his replacement today, the Minister of State, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, have taken notes on this. I was particularly impressed by the suggestion of a paper trail based on the mandatory documentation. I heard Senator Morrissey last night on "Tonight with Vincent Browne" where he was also very convincing. I hope the necessary action will be taken in this regard.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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He was a brave man to go out there.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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He was, but he is able to bat on his own wicket comprehensively. I have raised these issues over a number of years. Even this year I recall raising the question of two Sri Lankan workers interviewed on RTE television, who were in tears because they had come here on foot of certain undertakings given by Irish employers. They wanted to send money home to their families, something with which Irish people can identify. It is ingrained in our culture that our people went abroad to work, in England and America particularly, and helped to keep Ireland afloat by sending money back to their families. The Sri Lankan pair were baulked in this regard and were not able to do this because of the way in which they were swindled and cheated. The image of two grown married men in tears on Butt Bridge was a reproach to this country.

Then there is the question of the Filipinos, which has being going on for a long time. Many of our nursing services are being run on Filipino labour and these workers are not as well treated as they should be, as regards reunification with their families, general working conditions etc. We may very well lose them and then the health service will be in even worse trouble than it is at the moment. In addition, conditions almost amounting to slavery have been exposed where Filipinos are used as housemaids, child attendants and so forth.

I raised the question a short time ago of a group of Polish workers brought to Donegal by an employer who let them down extremely badly. They were stuck there, not paid for the week they worked and told they had no jobs. Were it not for the wonderfully warm and human response of the woman who ran the guest house and cancelled her holiday to look after them, their situation would have been much worse. She went on the radio and secured employment for these people who otherwise would have been stranded, through media publicity. I was proud of her as a decent Irish woman, but I was ashamed of the employers.

While abroad recently, I listened to the BBC World Service. It did not make me feel proud when I heard the case of Ms Salvacion Orge, the Filipina hired to work as beautician on Irish Ferries and paid 75 cent an hour. When she had the temerity to do an interview with RTE television, she was sacked. How is that for freedom of speech? Are we proud of this? Thank God for the trade unions and her co-workers who stood up for her and helped her to get to court where she got a settlement of €30,000.

I am sorry the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Martin, is no longer in the House. That does not mean I have any grudge against my former colleague in the House, the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe. Although I praised Deputy Martin when Minister for Health and Children and I know him to be a decent and caring man, this is not a good day for either him or his Department. They should be thoroughly ashamed. His speech was more waffle, blather and tripe about the economy. There was so much padding and filling, it meant sweet damn all.

The first action the Minister must take is to congratulate Deputy Joe Higgins of the Socialist Party. But for him, we would not be debating this matter. Where was the Department when this scandal was going on? It was only ventilated when Deputy Joe Higgins entered the arena. The Minister made the big announcement of asking the Irish ambassador to the Netherlands to contact the bank involved in the case this morning. Again, he is trailing after Deputy Joe Higgins who has already gone to Amsterdam with some of the employees to demand their account details from the bank. That was real action. The House must record its congratulations to Deputy Joe Higgins for doing the State and Parliament a service. The Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment must also acknowledge his efforts.

An apology is due to the workers for the lack of care for their welfare and interests by State officials. It is clear the workers were the victims of a massive and scandalous fraud. Will the Minister explain how his Department could be unaware of their plight when Deputy Joe Higgins was aware of it? It is essential that we follow the advice given by Senator Morrissey to monitor these situations.

Several years ago when in Turkey with the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, we were besieged by massive conglomerate building corporations, including Gama, all anxious to get into Ireland. Now we know why. Gama won many contracts, including the Ballincollig bypass, where it underbid other competitors, including Irish ones, by €15 million and the Ennis bypass, where it underbid by €5 million. It is easy to see how it could do so when it did not pay regular wages. The Minister skated over this by saying one can only get certain agreed regulated wages. However, Gama was forced by to admit it underpaid its workers. Again, it was Deputy Joe Higgins who forced them into this admission.

Several weeks ago on radio, a public relations spokesperson for Gama called Deputy Joe Higgins a liar.

Photo of Michael McCarthyMichael McCarthy (Labour)
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He was a solicitor.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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I thank Senator McCarthy for the correction. This representative of the company had to withdraw his allegation.

Gama is a large company that specialises in large construction projects, particularly electricity generating stations and bypasses. It imports workers from its homebase in Turkey who, by and large, do not speak English. Their passports and work permits are controlled by the company. The company accommodates them in what amount to army barracks and concentration camps. It works them from cockcrow to nightfall in all weather conditions without breaks. It is shameful that the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment is unaware of these conditions. That Turkey tolerates these types of work practices calls into the question its fitness to join the European Union.

In addition to the exploitation of the workers by paying them less than the minimum wage, the company engages in the noxious practice of using High Court injunctions to suppress publication of reports into its activities. This suggests there is some matter of concern which it seeks to hide. It is clear it relates to the bank accounts in Amsterdam. Although I have not had access to the report, I understand these workers were brought to Ireland en masse. The company knew the majority did not speak English, yet shortly before landing in Dublin, forms in English were pushed under the workers' noses which they were told they must sign. This was the legal authorisation for the company to open and operate bank accounts on behalf of the individual workers, an extraordinary and unheard of practice.

This debacle also calls into the question the operations and standards of the Finansbank, which I hope will be indicated to the Dutch authorities. Under pressure, the spokesperson admitted all the procedures were highly unusual or irregular as I call them. He prefaced this by saying people should be careful of what they sign. Caveat emptor; let the buyer beware. This is a mean-minded, legalistic get-out from scurrilous practices by the bank and the company. The spokesperson confirmed no statements were ever sent to the workers. The accounts were opened in a face-to-face manner. They were unaware that the moneys were then transferred into Ryder Investments, a company whose owners, controlling interests or beneficiaries are unknown.

The sums involved are between €20 million and €40 million. This must be cleared up by the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment. The operation of Gama Construction in Ireland must come under question. I am aware of concerns in some housing estates in Dublin city as to the quality of work by Gama. While I support the Department's efforts, I hope it has listened to Senator Morrissey's practical suggestions. This is still a black day for Ireland. Deputy Joe Higgins must be congratulated while the Department should hang its head in shame. We must apologise to the workers for allowing them to be systematically defrauded by their employers.

Mary Henry (Independent)
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I thank Senator Norris for sharing his time. I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe.

I wish to raise the issue of those migrant workers, doctors and nurses, who come to Ireland at our invitation on working visas to prop up the health service. Without them, we would be unable to run it. Over the years, I have frequently raised the issue of the difficulties these workers have in bringing relations to Ireland for short visits such as weddings, christenings or for Christmas. It is both humiliating for them and for me that I have to appeal to the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform for people, who are often distinguished individuals in their own countries, to be allowed into Ireland for several days. On one occasion I had to ask for a Nigerian Minister to be given a 24 hour visa to see his son receive his degree from the Royal College of Physicians. The man was in London and simply wanted to be in Ireland for only one day. Why would a Nigerian Minister want to stay in Ireland? These situations arise over and over again. These workers are indispensable to the health service and it is disgraceful they are treated in this manner.

As my services in this area had not been sought for approximately a year, I thought the situation had improved. However, that is not the case. In today's Medicine Weekly I read the following, under the heading "Visas solution for non-EU doctors":

Non-EU doctors are requesting a further meeting with the Department of Justice to resolve the ongoing difficulties with short-term visas for family members.

Last year the IMO Non-EU Doctors Advisory Committee agreed an interim process with the Department, where members who were having difficulty securing holiday visas for family members could communicate with Department officials through a dedicated e-mail service.

However, Committee Chairperson Mr Syed Jaffry said this was only intended to be a short-term measure and it was now time to find a more long-term resolution to the problem.

"The Department of Justice is acting with a single-track mind," Mr Jaffry said. "They are not willing to change anything and want to stay where they are. But we are planning another meeting to express our dissatisfaction with the system and ask for suggestions on how to improve it."

This is terrible. Similar cases to the one I described earlier occur all the time. One case involves a girl from China who is doing vital research work in St. James's Hospital. When her husband wanted to come to this country for Christmas with their son it was thought that he would never return even though he had an excellent job in his home country. St. James's Hospital was worried that the girl would return to China with the research uncompleted.

I am aware of another case where a man is seeking citizenship. He has filled a post in the medical service for 14 years, a post we have nobody else to fill. One would think that after 14 years the man concerned could get some type of advice as to why he is not granted citizenship. Of course, the Department is not obliged to state why citizenship is not being granted but what more can the man do? He has done all the required examinations and he is vital to this country.

Another matter which has been brought to my attention is also covered in Medicine Weekly. It is a problem I understood had been resolved. We undertake massive recruiting drives in the Far East, particularly in India, Pakistan and Malaysia, and we recruit some of the best personnel. We bring them to jobs in this country which are supposed to last for two years. A number of anaesthetists are now particularly aggrieved. They were told they would not have to sit the temporary registration assessment scheme examination. In fact, they were warned not to take it. They were instead "subjected to a rigorous appraisal by the various consultants with whom we were working". They continue: "Nearly every one of the doctors recruited to work in Ireland under section 7.6 have extremely healthy appraisals submitted to the Medical Council by these senior colleagues."

They came to this country on the understanding that they did not have to take the TRAS examination. However, after a number of years the council then said they had to take the examination. Why were they told they were suitable to work here without taking the examination only for them to discover a few years later that they must take the examination? They have been working satisfactorily here for a number of years. The Department will have to establish clarity between it and the Medical Council before bringing people to this country under what could be described as false pretences.

More than money is a problem with regard to the rights of migrant workers in this country. There must be clarity so this country is not seen internationally as using and abusing people. The same has happened with the nursing profession. Nurses, particularly Filipino nurses, were told their spouses would be allowed to come to this country and work. We cannot run the health service without these nurses. However, numerous nurses have told me that when their husbands tried to get work permits they were refused.

There are many issues to be addressed by the Minister. People we have enticed to this country are being treated as badly as those who could be described as having come here to further their own positions.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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I compliment the Minister, Deputy Martin, on his speedy response to this crisis. I thank him for his comprehensive speech and for his hands-on approach to this issue. He has been in contact with the bank in the Netherlands and our ambassador is dealing with the matter.

One point which has not been made clear is that the Gama organisation is Turkish owned. In this case Turkish employers are exploiting Turkish workers. Our responsibility is to uphold the employees' rights under Irish law. It is appropriate that we have this debate today and I compliment the Leader on arranging it so speedily. I had hoped the report prepared by the inspectorate of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment would be published in this House. It should be published. I hope the injunction will be lifted and that the Minister can issue the document to the House to clear up this matter. It is important that the issue is clarified. It would also be appropriate to examine the legislation in this area.

Each year millions of men and women leave their homes and cross national borders in search of greater security for themselves and their families. Most are motivated to migrate by the quest for higher wages and better opportunities but some are forced to do so because of famine, natural disasters, violent conflict or persecution. Historically, emigration has been economically beneficial to host countries as well as to the migrants. Many of the fears surrounding the impact of immigration on developed economies are unfounded or exaggerated. There is no evidence, for example, that immigration significantly reduces wages or increases unemployment.

Immigration is one of the most important challenges currently facing Ireland and the other member states of the European Union. As a society, it is imperative that we deal with the issues posed by immigration in a positive, coherent and humane way. It is a relatively new phenomenon in this country, dating from the mid-1990s. We have changed radically from a country of emigration to being a receiving country. The experience of Irish emigrants in many countries was often one of discrimination and hardship. We should ensure that we give an opportunity to the people who come here and not treat them as our emigrants were treated in the United States and the United Kingdom in the last century. Our experience exhorts us to treat immigrants to this country humanely and with respect.

We have an opportunity to manage the phenomenon of immigration in a positive, non-discriminatory, person-centred manner which will benefit both immigrants and the Irish society and economy. We must recognise at a legal level the rights of migrant workers and the important contribution such workers make to the European and Irish economies. According to the 2002 census, almost 7% of people living in Ireland are immigrants. This has significant implications for the workforce. In many towns, approximately 10% of the population is made up of non-EU nationals.

According to research, difficulties in processing work permits remains a problem for more than a quarter of employers. To combat these delays the immigration system must be made more streamlined to provide for greater access to information, shorter work permit processing times and the provision of automatic permits for spouses. This will ensure Ireland has an adequate labour supply to sustain economic growth. Far from taking our jobs, migrant workers are often highly skilled and motivated. In general, having the enthusiasm to leave one's home country and seek a better life is a sign of determination and great enterprise.

The Minister announced today that he is appointing an additional 11 labour inspectors, who will place a special emphasis on sectors where migrant workers are concentrated. The group will consist of a team leader and ten labour inspectors. The additional inspectors will strengthen the labour inspectorate's capacity to ensure that workers in these sectors receive their entitlements under employment rights legislation.

The current system whereby employers hold the work permits is nothing more than bonded servitude. As a result, employees who are unhappy with pay and conditions are not free to change jobs. The Minister clarified the different categories but the fact that the permit is issued to the employer imposes a control on the worker and makes their life, in most cases, difficult. This has been highlighted in the case of the Gama workers. Almost 35,000 work permits were issued in 2004 compared to 45,000 in 2003. This is mainly due to the change in employment rights for citizens in the European accession countries who no longer need permits. There was concern on 1 May 2004 that there would be massive immigration here from the ten accession countries. This did not materialise. Our policy at the time was that we did not need permits for those from the 25 member states. This policy was correct. The highest proportion of work permits are issued to citizens from the Philippines. Some 864 permits were issued to them in the first quarter of 2005. This is appropriate because of the need for skilled workers, particularly nurses and other medical staff, in the health services. They are very welcome and the Minister and the Department should be commended on issuing permits for people's partners or spouses to allow them to come and work here.

Shortage of certain skills can slow economic growth and by filling these gaps migrant workers boost the economy and create more jobs. Migrant workers also provide short-term relief from the pressure an aging population is putting on pensions and health services. We need migrant workers in the Irish economy. In most towns in the country we have people who are from outside the European Union. In my area, Roscommon, the majority of workers are from Brazil. They are skilled in the workings of the beef industry and other industries and are making an important contribution to the economy. This has created an enlightened attitude in the area and the workers have integrated successfully. The Minister is aware of the number of people who have come to this country and are making a contribution.

We should be proud of our economy. Instead of our people emigrating to find work we are creating jobs in Ireland. Nothing succeeds like success. The more successful we are, the more people come to our shores. They must be treated with respect and I commend Deputy Joe Higgins on highlighting the situation of the Gama workers. I am sure that if this case had been brought to the attention of any Member of this House or of the Dáil, he or she would have dealt with it in a similar manner and ensured that the rights of the workers were enhanced. There is great acceptance of the role of migrant workers in the economy.

The Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment is bringing forward a Bill that will put the employment permit arrangements on a legislative footing. This will provide greater accountability and transparency. The Bill will allow for a more managed economic migrant policy and enable the introduction of a green card system for highly-skilled migrant workers. I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Michael Ahern, and am delighted to see his involvement in this issue.

This is a crisis as far as Gama workers are concerned. I believe the matter will be resolved suitably. I hope the injunction will be lifted and we will have an opportunity to discuss this issue when the report is published.

Photo of Michael McCarthyMichael McCarthy (Labour)
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I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Michael Ahern. It is good that we are debating this issue. However, the reason for this debate is a source of shame to this country. That a company in the third millennium would treat workers in this fashion is disgraceful. The company has handled this matter very poorly. It has deliberately rejected factual information put to it by the media. In the High Court it has suppressed factual information gathered by the inspectorate at the Department, thereby adding insult to injury.

Since coming to this country five years ago the company has worked on four major sites, including the Ballincollig bypass, the Ballymun regeneration project and the Ennis bypass. I was a member of Cork County Council when contracts were signed for the Ballincollig bypass. Councillor John Mulvihill, a former Member of the Lower House, asked questions about the treatment of workers and the remuneration they received. He also pointed out that this company had submitted a bid that was €15 million lower than the nearest competitor. Even a cursory glance reveals this to be a huge amount of money, particularly in contract work, and particularly when most bids are within €3 million or €4 million of each other. Now we know the reason it could do this job at this price. It also bid for the contract for the Ennis bypass. This time its bid was €5 million lower than the nearest competitor.

These projects are vital for sustaining progress and encouraging infrastructural development. However, when contracts are signed by local authorities involving the National Roads Authority and funds from the EU there is now an onus on the State to ensure there is a clause that examines the rights of workers and employers' obligations regarding contract law, workers' rights and legislation affecting workers. This would be a proactive approach and would prevent situations from getting out of hand. This is no guarantee that workers will not be abused, that shortcuts will not be taken, or that such commitments will be honoured but the inspectorate could deal with that if the situation were to arise. At least there would be a structure in place to deal with this.

Let us consider the 2003 accounts for Gama Construction Ireland Limited. It employed an average of about 1,000 people. Staff costs and wages were in excess of €28 million. The average wage for workers was €26,000. The figure is extraordinarily low when one considers the industry-wide minimum wage is €12.60 per hour. Given the length of the working week one would not have to be a mathematician to know something is seriously wrong. It took the courage and foresight of Deputy Joe Higgins to reveal this scandal. Without him, we would not be discussing this. When it was discovered this money was kept in accounts in Holland it was, to all intents and purposes, money-laundering. This money was robbed from workers who did not have a command of the language and who worked from early morning to late in the evening. Years ago Irish workers abroad were the first to crow about these kind of conditions. Irish workers have never lost the mindset ingrained from years of working abroad.

Documents in English were signed by workers. One presumes this was the way signatures were obtained so that money could be held in Dutch accounts. It was hypocritical and wrong for a representative of the company to appear on national television and rebut the information put to him and to claim workers knew this was happening. It was a lie. The company changed its position as events unfolded, which makes the matter worse. In some cases Turkish workers were being paid €2.20 per hour, far below the minimum wage. We know about signs that went up on building sites and in shop doors in the UK to the effect that no Irish need apply for positions, yet this debacle happened in Ireland.

Shortly after Senator O'Rourke launched a book in Trinity College she raised the issue of female migrant workers. One woman who came to the country late in the evening got up early the next day and found a list of jobs to do. She had to complete tasks such as washing the dog and cutting the neighbour's grass. The woman had no time to settle in this country and probably did not have breakfast that morning. That list of tasks was drawn up by someone who knows better, someone who has benefited from the Celtic tiger and was in a position to hire staff. This is how that person abused workers' rights.

It is particularly sad when one considers that many of these workers leave behind young spouses and families. They came to this country to make money. The difference in remuneration is clear. They came to work in a country where they knew nobody. They were open to exploitation and were abused left, right and centre. In many cases, they came here just to improve the basic standard of living for their loved ones back home. There was no great financial reward for them. They were not buying yachts or holiday homes, they were simply trying to create a better standard of living for their loved ones.

The very fact that no payslips were issued to these workers tells its own story. It is a disgrace and is a violation of Irish law. It was clearly designed to fool workers by using a paper trail to cover up where the money was. We all know now that it was in a bank in Holland.

I know many steel fixers who are carrying out contract work in the Cork area. The levels of payment are well known. However, a 24-year-old steel fixer from Ankara claims he is owed €33,000 by Turkish standards. That fact tells its own story because if it is €33,000 by Turkish standards, one can be guaranteed it is a lot more by Irish standards. Other trained, skilled members of the workforce are being paid well below the grade that members of that profession would earn in this country.

It is not good enough for Gama to go to the High Court because it adds injury to insult. It is despicable that the company has gone to the High Court in an attempt to suppress the inspector's report. I appeal to the Minister of State to fight, through every possible avenue, the legal attempts by Gama to block this information from coming into the public domain. We need to examine this information and we owe it to the workers who were abused by Gama to ensure it is released.

When this matter was first revealed in early March, the statement issued by the company took some beating. Gama at first denied there had been any underpayments, while knowing full well that the money must have been in Holland all the time because they are the people who had put it there. The company then released a statement saying that an administrative error was responsible for an underpayment of 8%. That is despicable and the person who defended that position has no credibility. They blamed an administrative error for an 8% underpayment but do they think the Department inspectorate's officials are fools, or that the politician who revealed this scandal was at a loss to understand the English language?

Since 2002, the money has been transferred to these Dutch bank accounts. I will repeat the figures involved. The workers claim they were being paid €2.27 per hour, as against an industry standard minimum wage of €12.60. The difference equates to about €4,000 which is exactly the amount of money that was being lodged every three months in a bank account in Holland. It is clear, therefore, that the money was being deliberately deducted from the employees without their knowledge and being lodged in that account.

An article by Michael Clifford in The Sunday Tribune stated that one of the employee's accounts in the Dutch bank listed his address as Netterville Manor, Meath, Dowth, Ireland. The address in question is an old Irish house offering up-market bed and breakfast facilities. It is fair to say that there is not necessarily any link between the people who run this bed and breakfast establishment and the advertisement itself. It is a world away from the Second World War billeted accommodation that those people were used to. A website listed a telephone number for this particular employee, which was the number of Gama Ireland's headquarters in Dún Laoghaire. That is disgraceful. It is clear that they concocted this information to make it look as if it was a genuine operation.

I was driving along Molesworth Street yesterday and I came across the protest by the affected workers. I wound down my car window and was able to listen to the case being made by Deputy Joe Higgins. A good number of Turkish workers were outside the gates of Leinster House bringing their protest to the national Parliament.

It was a scandal that this case was allowed to happen but at least action is now being taken. It illustrates the extent to which people were prepared to go in order to break the law and abuse workers rights — one of the fundamental principles of social justice and equality for which my party was established over 80 years ago. It is a scandal that this has been allowed to continue in the third millennium. I appeal to the Minister of State to fight at every available opportunity the legal efforts being made by Gama. We owe it to the workers to publish the inspector's report.

Photo of Mary O'RourkeMary O'Rourke (Fianna Fail)
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I am glad to be able to speak on this issue. Over the years, we have had little experience of migrant workers because of emigration patterns. That does not, however, excuse in any way what has occurred in this case, far from it. It is difficult to imagine Ireland having a difficulty with migrant workers, given the way Irish emigrants were treated in other countries in the past. Senator McCarthy referred to the Gama company, which is the most obvious case. It has been cited in all the newspapers and while we all know about it, it is only the tip of the iceberg. The Gama case is instructive, given what it has highlighted. I am glad that Deputy Joe Higgins raised the matter and I regret that his work in this regard has not been commended. We are inclined to say, "Oh, that fellow", but I feel he did the State a service by raising this issue. Who else would have stood up for the Gama workers? I do not know. I did not see anybody else on the horizon willing to do the rounds that Deputy Joe Higgins undertook. He deserves to be praised for having raised the matter, as do the workers for highlighting their case.

I was at the gates of Leinster House yesterday afternoon and was glad that the workers were able to bring their case to the Houses of the Oireachtas. It was a good day for the workers and for democracy. Over the years, so many Irish were badly treated abroad, working in run-down jobs for low pay. There was nobody to stand up for them, while the establishment lorded it over them. The previous speaker was right to point out that the sign "No Irish Need Apply" appeared in some places.

When there is a chance of highlighting such cases, they should be brought to public attention. We should begin at the beginning. Gama was able to quote a low-cost estimate for the work involved. All those jobs would have been hotly contested by various contractors, yet Gama was able to provide a cheap estimate because it was paying its workers €2.27 per hour when the going rate was €16.75. The Minister also quoted the figure of €12.60.

Much has been made of the fact that they knew the other money, which they should have been receiving, was going to a Dutch bank account. I do not understand why they were asked to sign a form in English, which meant their money would go to the Dutch bank. It is daft because those workers spoke very little English. When the issue was first raised we were told that no complaints had been received from Gama workers, but how could they complain? They did not know where Kildare Street was, or the labour inspectorate or the Department. Neither did they know how to go about contacting departmental officials or the Minister. They are in another country where they cannot speak the language and do not know the relevant addresses, so how could they know where to go with their complaints? Gama's contention that it had received no complaint from the workers was the silliest response to the matter. The workers did not speak the language and did not have the know-how to formally lodge a complaint.

I hope the Department will henceforth be much more proactive in dealing with migrant workers in order to see whether their complaints are well founded. Departmental officials should search for the relevant workers and ask them for information, rather than waiting passively. The Department should undertake a proactive campaign rather than merely stating that no complaints by Gama workers were received. That is shameful. The Department inspector should be out among migrant workers, asking if there are problems. If they do not understand English, the inspector should hire someone proficient in Turkish, Romanian, Croatian or whatever language is spoken by workers on the site. Those who speak the language of the country in which they live have a distinct advantage while those who do not are at a clear disadvantage.

I still do not understand why money was being lodged in Dutch bank accounts, or why the Gama directors will not allow the report to be published. They have asked the courts twice or perhaps three times for an injunction against the publication of the report. I understand the report was carried out by the inspectorate and the Department. The Minister said he will circulate it to the Garda and other bodies. It is a pity he did not do so on the day he received it because we would then understand the situation better. There must be something in the report injurious to Gama management, since it does not want it released. There can be no other explanation. If the report clears the management, why should it not allow it be released? I expect that the report is very condemnatory of the way in which Gama management has carried out its business. Gama was able to quote very low estimates for many jobs because it was paying much less to its workers than Irish employers observing labour law and paying the requisite rates. An injustice has been done in that regard. I do not know how the report will be released. If I were the Minister I would be considering that issue.

Senator McCarthy is correct regarding female migrant workers. I launched the relevant report in early December and it would make the hair stand on one's head. Those workers are in bonded slavery in this country. Women are brought in as crèche workers, housekeepers, nannies or whatever but in many cases are badly treated. Their cases are documented in black and white. I cannot recall the name of the report but it was startling. I heard someone ask how these workers dared tell their stories of employment. Why should they not tell them and talk of what was happening to them, and in so doing highlight their cases? Many are terrified. It is easy for us to suggest they be brave and speak up. If one is in another country, dependent on passage home, does not speak the language and does not have friends, one's instincts are to play safe and not speak up.

Senator McCarthy is correct. I read of a woman who arrived at Dublin Airport at 11 o'clock and went to the house where she was to work as a housekeeper or housemaid. The employer greeted her and gave her a list of jobs to be done in the morning. She was first to wash the dog, then to mow the neighbour's lawn. There were about 20 other instructions. Presumably she was expected to work like this every day.

I talked to many of these workers. We do not have enough interaction and are inclined to return to our old grooves and say these workers are lucky to get jobs and to be here. How could that be so? Their passage costs are stopped from their wages, which is fair if the arrangement has been entered into. I can understand that, but I cannot understand how they are treated as menials by jumped-up jackasses barely a day or two removed from whatever they worked at before. That they see fit to treat people in that fashion is a serious indictment of Ireland.

I know the Minister has promised 11 more labour inspectors. The jobs must be advertised and interviews and appointments must take place. That the numbers are to be increased by 50% almost overnight shows the Minister recognises the shortage. I congratulate the Minister on getting Cabinet approval so quickly for these appointments.

The employment laws must be obeyed. It is very good news that there will be more labour inspectors but I urge that they be proactive and not weakly wait for complaints to come from people who do not speak English and do not know where Kildare Street is. Can one imagine someone from another country marching to the gates of Leinster House and demanding to speak to someone who would ensure his or her rights? One would get short shrift if one tried that game. Accordingly, a more proactive approach is needed on the part of labour inspectors.

However it turns out, the Gama situation is only the tip of the iceberg regarding what is happening in other towns and areas. There are also numerous instances of great rapport between Irish employers and workers from other countries. I know of a mushroom industry outside Athlone which employs Latvians and Lithuanians who have been properly paid and housed and who have a great relationship with their employer. Many good stories do not surface but each bad story we hear is a blot on Ireland and on our record of how we treat employees.

Photo of Maurice CumminsMaurice Cummins (Fine Gael)
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I would like to share my time with Senator Feighan.

Photo of Labhrás Ó MurchúLabhrás Ó Murchú (Fianna Fail)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Maurice CumminsMaurice Cummins (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House. The appalling conditions experienced by many migrant workers in this country are a national disgrace. Unscrupulous employers are responsible but the Government must share the responsibility for its failure to take prompt and decisive action in the area. Employers found to be in breach of the regulations should if possible be jailed. The Leader was correct in saying that the Department must take a more proactive role. There is no point in waiting until it hears of problems. The Department should seek out problems and find out what is happening with migrant workers.

Gama has been regularly mentioned, but we have seen breaches of regulations in the Irish shipping industry, in the health service and in many other areas. The minimum wage legislation has been breached and very little action has been taken against the culprits. Under the relevant Act, the penalties for non-compliance are derisory and should be urgently changed.

We have about 17 inspectors to inspect and police the labour force of probably 1.5 million workers. The number of dog inspectors, about 50, is more than the number of inspectors policing the workforce. I welcome the 11 extra labour inspectors. It is a case of "too little, too late" but they must be welcomed. Their brief should be to be proactive, as the Leader said, rather than wait for complaints. Their job is to go among the workforce, into the factories and wherever people are working.

It was stated recently in a newspaper article that last year, the then Minister for Finance, the former Deputy McCreevy, wanted to increase the number of labour inspectors but the initiative was obstructed and sabotaged by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. Did this happen? The question needs to be answered. At the time, the Minister in that Department saw its main duty as smoothing the path of business, with no obvious need for labour inspectors despite the repeated allegations of abuse of migrant workers. As a result of public opinion, particularly with regard to Gama, the situation has clearly changed.

However, we have seen little action. When will legislation be introduced to ensure adequate penalties are put in place to penalise people who do not comply with labour law and regulations?

The Minister alluded to the work permit situation. I thought his response very woolly. We need legislation to deal with this area as the current policy does not work and only adds to the suggestion that what we promote is a type of slave labour. The Department states that its policy should be informed by the imperative to address the identified labour and skill needs in the economy. Giving work permits to employees rather than employers will not affect that; it may actually help. There is a need for radical restructuring of policy in the area. We need it now. The time for reports and promises is long gone. We need action from the Minister rather than words.

Some people may be prepared to see our roads, tunnels and other important infrastructure being built by workers who work ridiculously long hours for ridiculously low pay, workers who are vulnerable and afraid to speak out in many instances. I am not prepared to see this proud country sink to such a low, which is what is happening. The Government must act to ensure justice is done and seen to be done in this regard. I understand the Department is in possession of a recent report which suggests reforms that will ensure the burden of compliance will be switched to firms. Greater penalties are also suggested. When will the legislation be introduced?

I note from the Minister's speech that he received a report of the investigation of the labour inspector into alleged breaches of employment rights with regard to Gama. He further stated that the labour inspectorate is continuing its investigation and that if breaches of employment legislation are found, the legislation will be enforced in full. Does this mean we will receive another report following the current one? The Minister's speech is confusing because he mentions that he cannot publish the current report because of the High Court challenge, but he still speaks of a continuing investigation. Will the Minister of State clarify that?

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Fine Gael)
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I thank Senator Cummins for sharing his time with me as I am anxious to speak on this issue. Times have changed from little over a decade ago and the previous century and a half when many young Irish people relied on other countries for employment. The Irish diaspora travelled to the United Kingdom, Australia, the United States and many other countries and were well taken care of. Our rights were undermined at times, sometimes by our own people. Anybody who went to the United Kingdom would say that the employers and the government there were very fair to Irish workers and introduced holidays etc. Unfortunately, it was sometimes the Irish employer or colleagues from their community who abused and undermined the rights of the Irish workers.

Now many years on, the ball is at our foot. We cannot allow a situation where a Filipina could work on an Irish ferry for a paltry €1 an hour. We cannot allow Turkish workers come into our country and work for €2 to €3 an hour, as is alleged. We must ensure this does not happen and not just give lip service to this important issue. I was embarrassed that a woman would be paid €1 an hour and that this woman was paid off by a highly visible company with €25,000. This is not acceptable. The rigours of the law must be enforced to ensure that any company that undermines workers rights or that underpays workers should face the full rigours of the law.

Over 20 years ago we took great pride in the "buy Irish" campaign and in goods that were guaranteed Irish. As a small shopkeeper employer who finds it difficult to operate profitably I welcomed the introduction of the minimum wage. However, it is difficult to compete with large supermarkets and companies that do not pay the minimum wage as the minimum wage is not enforced by regulation. Years ago people would support Irish products and businesses, but I urge the people to boycott those businesses that do not pay the minimum wage. How far will Irish consumers go in this regard? Unfortunately, consumers are driven by price, not by service. They do not care what happens behind closed doors as long as they get value. The market must be sorted out, but we must sort ourselves out also.

I am delighted the inspectorate has been increased by 50%. This has come a little late, but is welcome. We must enforce our policy and ensure that migrant workers are welcomed into the country and that they receive the same respect and rights as the Irish worker. I welcome this debate in which we all have a role to play.

Photo of Camillus GlynnCamillus Glynn (Fianna Fail)
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I wish to share my time with Senator Hanafin.

Photo of Labhrás Ó MurchúLabhrás Ó Murchú (Fianna Fail)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Camillus GlynnCamillus Glynn (Fianna Fail)
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I would be delighted if this debate was unnecessary. However, as it is necessary, I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak on it. As a person who was an emigrant and who worked across the water I can speak from practical experience and say that I did not share the fate of the Gama workers or their recent experience. Whether we speak to employers of the Gama workers or others, there can be no hiding place for people who treat workers in this fashion. It is a typical example of man's inhumanity to man.

Some years ago we all read and heard about the Irish tatie hokers who went to Scotland. We know how much attention that story drew and how their treatment was condemned. The influx of the Gama workers and others to this country is an enrichment of the work force. They should and must not be treated any differently from others. If they are doing the job, they deserve the same pay. It is outrageous that people must take to the streets in protest, as we have witnessed. Having heard this debate from its inception it is clear the issue is not the preserve of any section or side of the political divide. This matter exercises the mind of every Member of the Oireachtas and must be addressed appropriately.

The only access to Ireland, a country on the periphery of the European Union, is by water or air. There are difficulties in a number of trades, not least the catering and construction trades, where it is difficult to get certain categories of workers. If we have created a situation where we welcome through advertisement in the international media non-national workers to our shores, proper working conditions, proper levels of pay and, above all, proper treatment of those workers should obtain. Nothing less is or will be acceptable.

I strongly support the comments of every speaker. One of the disadvantages of speaking later in a debate is much of what one would like to say has been said but we will not boil the cabbage twice. The Minister of State has an in-depth interest in ensuring migrant workers should be treated the way we would all like to be treated, fairly and squarely.

Photo of John Gerard HanafinJohn Gerard Hanafin (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State's commitment to support migrant workers. The deliberate mistreatment of such workers is not done in our name and the Government will introduce the necessary legislation to ensure not only that these workers get their fair share but that they have a positive experience in Ireland and receive a céad míle fáilte. The demands placed on the workforce by the expanding economy means migrant workers are needed. They are welcome and they enrich us in many ways. Occasionally, we forget how much Ireland benefits from welcoming people of different nationalities, culture and skills, which make the country wealthier. The skills needed to work in the tourism or mushroom picking industries might not be as high as those required by the medical profession and so on but some migrant workers in these industries have greater skills and it was recommended in a recent report that they should be allowed to use their skills for the benefit of the country so that we can continue to develop.

The sign, "No Irish Need Apply", still lingers in the memory and while it is not comfortable to recall such signs, it is good to recall that the Irish were not always welcome abroad, yet they enriched the countries to which they emigrated, particularly the United States. Approximately 44 million people in the US are of Irish descent while in the UK one in seven people is of Irish descent and 30% of the Australian population is of Irish descent. They are an intrinsic part of these communities. We must also be open and the Government is absolutely committed in this regard.

The Irish experience of the vast majority of migrant workers is positive. I take pride in the efforts of their Irish co-workers to ensure they return home with a positive experience of Ireland. However, we can also benefit and we should concentrate on this. The workers in Gama have become an important reference point for all of us. The Government is totally committed to them to ensure their full rights are vindicated.

Ireland was a country of net emigration for many years but it has become a country of net immigration. We are coping with this challenge and working positively to ensure migrant workers who are entitled to the minimum wage of €7.65 per hour, which will be introduced in May, receive it and, more important, to ensure they can develop their skills and lives. I await with interest the proposals to ensure migrant workers have security of tenure during their stay in Ireland. The Government has introduced a number of initiatives, including the appointment of 11 additional labour inspectors, and it is committed to ensuring migrant workers have a fair and positive experience of Ireland.

Photo of Pat MoylanPat Moylan (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State. No Irish person will have been proud on reading about the plight of the Gama workers. Anyone who has worked can only feel sad about workers who have been allegedly treated like them. Other companies who employ migrant workers look after them as best they can and ensure their accommodation is top class and their wages are looked after in an orderly manner but, unfortunately, a number of companies which paid workers a fraction of the official union rate tendered successfully for contacts against companies who paid the appropriate rate. The Government must step in and penalise such companies. Many migrant workers are not housed in appropriate accommodation by these employers. In a number of cases senior company officials have purchased accommodation to house their migrant employees who, in turn, pay the mortgages for them.

We were grateful to take in migrant workers because there was a significant skills shortage a few years ago. Some of these workers had trades and other skills, which ensured production levels were maintained by many companies so that they could meet the urgent requirements of the marketplace. We would not be where we are if it were not for those workers. They have been employed in every factory in every town and village in the State and they have made a major contribution to our development and wealth over the past few years. It is disturbing to read about the low pay some of them received. The increase in the minimum wage is welcome and it at least provides a floor regarding what workers are entitled to be paid. I compliment the Minister of State in this regard.

Companies engaged in tourism and meat processing would have closed down years ago if it were not for migrant workers. Ireland has a highly educated population, many of whom have graduated from low skill to high skills jobs. As a consequence, migrant workers are required and it must be ensured they are looked after because many of them will return home to set up businesses and more of their compatriots will be required to ensure our economy continues to expand. Many Irish people have travelled abroad on work permits and it would be a sad day if we thought our emigrants had been treated in the same way non-national workers have been treated by a number of domestic companies. It would be a sad day if we thought that Irish emigrants in Australia and other countries might be treated in the fashion in which it appears some companies have treated non-national workers here. In examining that, we must not lose sight of the very good companies that paid the required rates and looked after employees as the permits ensured they would. I am aware of several in my own town in the midlands who are certainly being looked after and paid well. Unfortunately, from what we read in the newspapers, several companies have not honoured their commitments and have let down this country and the Government that gave them the permits to allow them to enter.

Photo of Tony KilleenTony Killeen (Minister of State, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Clare, Fianna Fail)
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I commend the Seanad on having facilitated this very important debate. I strongly support the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Martin, in his undertakings in this regard. I also greatly appreciate the work of the labour inspectorate and departmental officials, particularly over the last few weeks, in which an enormous amount of work was done in a very short time. I thank those Senators who contributed to the debate and I will try to respond to the points made. Sometimes that is a little difficult, since I tend to pick out one or two when people may have made much more rounded contributions.

Senator Coghlan asked a very important question when he sought assurances that each Gama worker would get the full amount due to him. As the Minister said in his opening address, that is our intention. Every effort will be made to ensure that all Gama workers, past and present, are given their due entitlements and that their terms and conditions of work are in accordance with the law and honoured in full. I can certainly give that assurance.

Senator Morrissey asked several questions, among them how the work permits section checks when work permits are being renewed that people have been paid the amount undertaken in the original application. That is checked through the P60 system which document is sought for renewal of a work permit. Senator Norris made several points. Previous examinations of this situation and others did not throw up the facts that appear to have come to light in this instance, and that is regrettable. Senator Henry referred to family reunification issues, something we will have to address as a nation as realistically we have a very large number of non-nationals working in the economy, many of whom are likely to wish to stay here for a considerable period or perhaps for the rest of their lives.

Senator Leyden congratulated the Minister on the work he had done to date and made the very important point that we must publish the report. One hopes that, when the injunction is lifted, that will be the case. Senator McCarthy, among other issues, questioned the awarding of contracts. That is one of the issues that has not been a central focus owing to fears and concerns regarding the workers, but the Government will consider it. It is very important that there be a level playing field and fair play in that regard.

Senator O'Rourke made the point that there ought to be more formal interaction with migrant workers to enable them to make the inspectorate and others aware of any difficulties regarding their employment. That is one of the difficulties that we have had, since we have not really been able to get that information as readily as one would from English-speaking workers. In that regard, I pay tribute to Deputy Joe Higgins for his work on this problem and also to SIPTU, which has consistently argued for an increase in the number of labour inspectors, pointing out that there have been concerns regarding migrant workers. I also met representatives of the Migrant Rights Centre, which I found extremely helpful in pointing out what difficulties there might be. It is fair to say that, all things considered, a considerable amount of additional light has been cast on the entire area of migrant workers, their contribution to our economy, how they are being treated and how they should be treated. We certainly need to go forward from here to ensure that such issues are dealt with.

I heard several speakers, including Senator Cummins whose central point concerned the need for additional vigilance and stronger legislation and enforcement. Inevitably, that will emerge from this debate. Senator Feighan referred, as did other speakers, to the historical change in our own role from being the people who were the migrant workers to being those whose economy now needs such workers. Senator Glynn regretted the need for the debate, while simultaneously welcoming it. In a sense, that encapsulates what we all feel about this situation.

Senator Hanafin welcomed the Minister's commitment, given in his speech this morning and his work over recent weeks, which I strongly support. Senator Moylan once again made the point about competition in a situation where some employers may not be paying the correct rates or may have people working longer hours than is legal. It is impossible for those who comply with the legislation to compete for the awarding of contracts. It is perhaps also suggested that we should check more carefully regarding other migrant workers.

There are already some positives emerging from today's debate and what has happened since 8 February. First, there is the appointment of the additional labour inspectors, a step to which I committed myself very soon after my appointment in September 2004. I am delighted we will have 11 more people in this role. It will have an enormously positive impact on the quality of the workplace for everyone in employment, something of which we sometimes lose sight. We have very successfully increased our workforce from just over 1.1 million to over 1.9 million, but we must also consider the quality of that experience for people, since there are factors besides pay that encourage people to participate. I am delighted that we will have the additional labour inspectors to assist us in that regard. It is also important to point out that it would not matter how many inspectors one had if one did not have the evidence and co-operation of workers to ensure that matters alleged can be pursued. One hopes that we will see that in the outcome of this case in the coming months. I look forward to the publication of the report when the injunction is lifted and welcome what the Minister said in that regard earlier today.

As many Senators may be aware, I announced the national minimum wage increase with effect from 1 May. The minimum wage area ties in very closely with much of what has been happening over the past few days regarding what the inspectors have been trying to establish and what speakers have been seeking here. We must remember that the minimum wage can be enforced, as can the registered employment agreement rates. However, currently, in the construction industry, these range from €7.36 to €8.09 per hour. A difficulty regarding the rate means that it has not been updated since 1998. The joint industrial council norm is €16.20, but that is currently not enforceable, something that may well turn out to be a problem.

It is also important to reiterate what the Minister said regarding the entitlements of migrant workers. They have precisely the same rights under our labour legislation as everyone else, and those rights will be vindicated. Sometimes the State may move slowly and is frequently the butt of criticism for the fact that procedures are somewhat slow and may seem tedious. However, there are very good reasons for that. We operate within the law, expecting and demanding that employers and others do the same. We must be prepared to do the same ourselves and if matters go to court, they are adjudicated on at that point.

I should also point out that we have an enormous amount of labour legislation, a very confusing corpus with a great number of Acts and provisions that cross over each other. I hope to draw all that legislation together, making the machinery of labour relations considerably more user-friendly than at present. It is something of an ordeal for someone to work through it. Ultimately, that will be to everyone's benefit. I am glad to report that I have the support of the social partners and the Government in seeking to make that move. It will make a very positive contribution to resolving difficulties such as those we are discussing today.

Several speakers referred to the number of work permits. In 1999, we issued only 6,000 such permits. By 2003, that figure had risen to 48,000. An enormous workload was imposed on the section. To be fair, most people would agree that the most important requirement of the State was that the positions that needed to be filled and the workers necessary to enable to economy to grow were provided. Perhaps we did not provide as much expertise or support to those issuing the work permits as we should have done. We certainly have lessons to learn from today; we will do so and act on them.

The Minister referred to the proposed employment permits Bill and the possibility of introducing a green card system. While such a system would address some of the difficulties, I am not sure that it would not create other small difficulties. We will need to be vigilant to ensure that a good balance is struck. The current system has some advantages for employees — for example, employers are eventually checked when they make applications. That process would become more difficult if authorisations, in the form of green cards, were held by employees. We can examine that aspect of the matter carefully in the context of the debate on the forthcoming Bill.

As the Minister said, people from the accession states and elsewhere in the European Economic Area have had full employment rights in this jurisdiction since 1 May 2004. Ireland's decision to give them such rights was warmly welcomed by other EU member states, particularly the accession states. It has drawn admiration from some countries which have been EU member states for a long time. They are impressed that a small open economy with a relatively small population has taken what is acknowledged to be a brave step by allowing people from the accession states to work in this country without work permits. The system we have introduced has worked well. The House should bear in mind that there are over 19 million unemployed people in the EU. As a member of the Union, Ireland is obliged not to walk away from such people.

We often refer to work permits, but we should remember that there are four different forms of work permit — I refer to the work authorisation system, the visa system, the inter-company transfer authorisation system, which is very important, and the system of permits for service contracts. The area is much wider and more complex than people realise. Perhaps it was inevitable that difficulties would arise, but the Government and the Parliament need to respond by taking action on foot of what has been discovered. I assure the House that will be done.

Sitting suspended at 1.30 p.m. and resumed at 2.30 p.m.