Seanad debates

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Employment Permits (Amendment) Bill 2014: Second Stage


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

12:10 pm

Photo of Richard BrutonRichard Bruton (Dublin North Central, Fine Gael)
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I am very pleased to have the opportunity to introduce this Bill to the Seanad today. The Bill, which has passed all Stages in the Dáil, has been recognised as progressive legislation which will provide us with the flexibility required to keep pace with the global skills market while simultaneously prioritising the rights of foreign nationals who choose to work in the State. This amending legislation, and the new regulations which will support it, will enhance our employment permits system in order that we can continue to develop enterprise in the State for all of our benefit, while also protecting the Irish labour market and the employment rights of those migrants who come to work here.
The following are some of the key objectives in the Bill. First, it recognises the different types of employment scenarios which arise for enterprises, both Irish and multinational, in the modern workplace. It provides for a range of employment permit categories to facilitate foreign workers to enter employment legally in the State, thus meeting our demand for highly skilled personnel, as well as filling temporary gaps and accommodating intra-company transfers and contract service providers. It will allow for flexibility, by way of regulations, to provide for both eligible and ineligible employments for employment permits dependent on skills shortages and surpluses and efforts under way in the education sector. Second, it strengthens the requirement that preference must be given, wherever possible, to Irish and EEA nationals in the awarding of contracts of employment. This policy underpins the Government’s employment creation objectives by requiring employers in the State to hire in a balanced manner from the local labour market and fulfils our EU obligations regarding community preference under the treaties. Third, it amends the 2003 Act to provide a defence to a migrant who is in breach of employment permit legislation despite his or her efforts to work in line with statutory requirements. These amendments address the Younis case, which was delivered on 31 August 2012. Fourth, the Bill establishes a category of employment permit to assist those migrants who have fallen out of the employment permits system through no fault of their own. I am pleased to be in a position to facilitate my colleague the Minister for Justice and Equality in bringing forward proposed changes to legislation under her remit. The Minister wishes to make a number of technical amendments to the Immigration Act 2004 and to the Illegal Immigrants (Trafficking) Act 2000 which will provide for urgent and badly needed efficiencies in the operation of the immigration system.
I propose to outline the main provisionsof the Bill, as passed by the Dáil. It consists of six Parts, and 39 sections. Part 1 contains the Short Title, collective citation, construction and commencement provisions, and interpretation. Part 2 amends the Act of 2003. Section 3 amends section 2 of the Act of 2003 to provide a defence to a foreign national to the offence of having been employed without an employment permit. It ensures the transfer of a foreign national in the intra-company transfer situation is included in the general requirement to have an employment permit, and it provides an exemption from the requirement for an employment permit for certain foreign nationals who are in the State under the terms of the Diplomatic Relations and Immunities Act 1967. Section 4 amends the Act of 2003 by inserting an additional section 2B and 2C which permits a foreign national, who can satisfy a court that he or she took all reasonable steps to comply with the requirement of having an employment permit, to take civil action for compensation against the employer, notwithstanding the illegality of the contract. This is in addition to potential criminal prosecution of the employer.
Part 3 amends the Act of 2006 to provide for nine new purposes for which I, as Minister, may grant employment permits, to strengthen the requirement for employers to consider EEA nationals before foreign nationals, and to focus on the particular needs of start-up companies by providing necessary flexibility with key sectors of economic growth and make provision for the role that IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland play in enterprise development and job creation.
Section 6inserts new section 1A into the 2006 Act. That section which was introduced on Committee Stage in the Dáil, is a revised definition of remuneration for the purposes of the grant of an employment permit and provides for different components of remuneration for the different categories of employment permits.
Section 7inserts new sections 3A, 3B, 3C, 3D, 3E and 3F into the 2006 Act. Section 3A sets out the different purposes for which employment permits can be granted. They cover critical skills employment permitsfor attractingforeign nationals with skills that are in short supply in Ireland and which are critical to our economic success, such as ICT skills, dependant-partner-spouse employment permits for attracting highly skilled foreign nationals or researchers, general employment permits for skills of a more general nature where the employer was unable to fill the position from the EEA labour market, intra-company transfer employment permits for facilitating transfers between branches of a company for a specified duration and project, contract for service employment permits for facilitating the temporary employment in Ireland of foreign nationals working in a company based outside of Ireland that has won a contract to provide services to an Irish company, reactivation employment permits for foreign nationals who entered the labour market on a valid employment permit but who have subsequently fallen out of the system for a variety of reasons, including redundancies, exploitation, and ignorance, through no fault of their own - this permit type is a direct response to cases that the Migrant Rights Centre of Ireland has brought to our attention over the years - exchange agreement employment permits for dealing with reciprocal international arrangements - the Fulbright Scholarship is among the best known of such programmes, sports and cultural employment permits for dealing with sports and cultural professionals, and internship employment permits for dealing with applications related to student internship programmes involving work experience in employments on the highly skilled occupations list.
Section 3B inserts a new provision in the 2006 Act which recognises the role that IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland play in giving advice on applications made by their client companies and provides for the Minister to consider their recommendations without being bound by them. Sections 3C to 3F, inclusive, set out a number of supplementary conditions applying to dependant-partner-spouse, intra-company transfer, contract for services and sports and cultural employment permits.
Section 8 amends section 4 of the 2006 Act. The amendment provides for application requirements following on the new categories of employment permit. It also provides for a minimum period of employment for the critical skills employment permit, and transitional arrangements for the spouse, dependant or partner of current so-called green card holders. Section 9replaces the current section 6 and section 7 of the 2006 Act concerning information to be provided with an application. Section 10 amends section 8 of the 2006 Act in line with the new employment permit categories. It sets out what employment permission the employment permit grants to the foreign national and the duration of the employment permit.
Section 11 amends section 9 of the 2006 Act which concerns the type of information to be included on an employment permit and permits the Minister to include any additional information considered appropriate. Section 12 amends section 10 of the 2006 Act which provides powers to restrict the granting of an employment permit on the basis of what is commonly known as the labour market needs test and the 50:50 rule. The labour market needs test is now dealt with in the new section 10A which is inserted by section 13 of the Bill. The 50:50 rule requires that employers seeking to hire foreign nationals on an employment permit have at least 50% of their workforce from Ireland or the EEA. The amendment requires the 50:50 rule to be applied in all situations except in the case of a start-up company. Section 23 of the Bill provides for safeguards by imposing a limit on the duration of the renewed permit.
Section 13 amends the Act of 2006 by inserting a new section 10A to deal with the labour market needs test. The labour market needs test seeks to ensure an offer of employment is first made to people already in the local and EEA labour markets and will ensure that such tests will apply to relevant applications for employment permits irrespective of who makes the application.

The labour market needs test will, subject to the specified exceptions, apply to the general employment permits and employment permits relating to contract for services agreements. Section 10A also provides that the Minister may make regulations regarding the requirements of the labour market needs test.
Section 14 amends section 11 of the 2006 Act, which concerns the matters to which the Minister must have regard when considering an application. The amendment adds a provision in order that consideration will include the nine new purposes specified in section 3A(2) inserted by section 7 of the Bill. Section 15 amends section 12 of the 2006 Act, which provides the grounds for refusing to grant or renew an employment permit. There are two classes of amendment. First, those relating to issues identified in the operation of the current Acts and second, those which are consequential to the amendments to the Acts made by the Bill and in particular those made by section 3A. Some of the amendments introduce new grounds and others broaden the scope of existing grounds. Section 16 amends section 13 of the 2006 Act to give the Minister the power to review a refusal to grant a permit. Section 17 amends section 14 of the 2006 Act, which provides the Minister with regulation-making powers to provide for each type of employment permit and to regulate for different requirements to apply depending on the type of employment permit and the different circumstances.
Section 18 inserts a new section 14A into the Act of 2006 which ensures that when making regulations in respect of remuneration, the Minister can take into account the going rate in the marketplace for such employments and can refuse to grant a permit if the remuneration offered is less than the minimum annual remuneration specified in regulations in respect of the employment concerned, regardless of whether the hours of work for the employment concerned are equal to or less than 39 hours per week. If the weekly hours of work for the employment concerned exceed 39 hours, the minimum annual remuneration must be increased pro rata. This underpins the public policy prerogative that a foreign national should be earning a sufficient remuneration to prevent his or her recourse to the social welfare system.
Section 19 amends section 15 of the Act of 2006 and identifies the criteria which the Minister may consider in regulating under section 14. The amendments strengthen the provisions of the existing Act by providing regulation-making power in respect of the experience of a foreign national as a criterion. Section 20 amends section 16 of the Act of 2006 by providing for additional grounds for the revocation of an employment permit. Section 21 amends section 17 of the Act of 2006 by providing for the intra-company transfer situation. Section 22 amends section 19 of the Act of 2006 by deleting the distinction in that Act in respect of applications by foreign nationals. Various other sections of the Bill make similar deletions, including sections 25 and 26. This has the effect of ensuring that all applications are treated on an equal basis and are subject to the same rules when being considered for an employment permit. Section 23 amends section 20 of the Act of 2006, which deals with the renewal of employment permits and sets out the circumstances in respect of which a permit may or may not be renewed. Importantly, the amended section 20 exempts renewal applications of existing, pre-enactment, permits from the 50:50 rule on the basis that, at the time the initial application was made, neither the employer nor the foreign national could have foreseen this new requirement. In addition, the amendment provides for renewal of applications in the case of start-up companies and sole employees.
Section 24 inserts four new sections, namely, sections 20A, 20B, 20C and 20D, into the Act of 2006. These sections give an additional six months to certain permit holders who are made redundant to find employment and apply for a new permit. They also exempt them from certain rules that would otherwise apply such as, for example, the labour market needs test and eligibility criteria with regard to the job. This provision is inspired by cases brought to the Government's attention over the years by organisations like the Migrant Rights Centre and Nasc in Cork. Sections 25 and 26 amend sections 23 and 24 of the Act of 2006, respectively, by removing references to applications by foreign nationals. It also clarifies the obligations in an intra-company transfer situation. Section 27 tidies and updates the provisions of section 27 of the Act of 2006 with regard to the requirements on an employer to retain records for inspection. It also clarifies these obligations in an intra-company transfer situation.
Section 28 includes new terms used in the Bill, such as "relevant person", who is the person who has entered into a contract with a foreign service provider, and "connected person", who is the linked company in the State into which the foreign national is transferred under an intra-company transfer arrangement. Section 29 amends section 29 of the Act of 2006, which provides for regulations setting out the process and information requirements for the making of an application for an employment permit. Section 30 amends section 30 of the Act of 2006 and sets out further provisions concerning regulations. Section 31 amends section 31 of the Act of 2006 to allow for the issue of notices or documents by ordinary prepaid post instead of registered prepaid post. Section 32 amends section 37 of the Act of 2006 to provide for the sharing of information with the Garda Síochána. Section 33 amends Schedule 1 to the Act of 2006 to update references to various employment enactments that are relevant in the context of prosecutions under employment permits legislation.
Part 4 provides for amendments to the Illegal Immigrants (Trafficking) Act 2000, which I am taking on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Justice and Equality. Section 34 substitutes section 5 of the Act of 2000. The amendments include the removal of the "on notice" provision in section 5 and for a number of other amendments and new subsections. These other amendments provide for the inclusion of certain safeguards that are considered necessary owing to the removal of the "on notice" provision. They also take account of other developments relating to judicial reviews in the asylum and immigration area.
Part 5 provides for amendments to the Immigration Act 2004 and Aliens Order 1946, which I also am taking on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Justice and Equality. Section 35 amends the Immigration Act 2004. The amendments primarily concern the registration of non-nationals in the State to achieve the following aims. First, to provide for the transfer of the registration function from An Garda Síochána, which currently responsible is for it, to the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service, INIS, in the Department of Justice and Equality. Second, to provide registration facilities to non-nationals, which may be from a single central location or through a number of regional locations around the State and third, to remove the exemption to register for persons under 16 years. Section 36 is a consequential drafting amendment to the Aliens Order 1946.
Part 6 makes an amendment to the Taxes Consolidation Act 1997, repeals a number of provisions of the 2006 Act and provides for transitional arrangements in respect of employment permits already in force. Section 37 amends the Taxes Consolidation Act 1997. Section 37(a) inserts a new section 124A in the 1997 Act and seeks to impose an income tax charge on any payments made under a court order under new section 2B of the Act of 2003 and to have the PAYE system applied to the payments. Section 37(b) puts beyond doubt that the exemption provided for in section 192A of the 1997 Act does not apply to payments made under a court order under section 2B of the Act of 2003. Section 38 repeals a number of existing provisions primarily to remove the distinction between applications by foreign nationals and employers. It also repeals section 35(2) of the Act of 2006, which provides for evidence given in proceedings for an offence under the Act to be video-recorded, as video recording is no longer required. Section 39 provides for transitional arrangements and savings in respect of employment permits that are in force or applications on hand immediately before the coming into operation of the Bill.
In conclusion, I thank Members for providing time to consider this Bill. I am sure we will have an extensive discussion on the issues here. The background to this legislation essentially is that in a modern global economy, it is necessary to have a modern system for identifying the critical skills that must be provided in the Irish economy and for allowing employers who need to find those skills to find them overseas if they are not available in the European market. Moreover, a system is needed that is quick and easy to operate. Through the officials of my Department, that system has been streamlined on an administrative basis quite considerably and I believe the turnaround time to deal with an application has halved. The Department continues to try to make it more user-friendly and in this Bill, the Government recognises that companies supported by Enterprise Ireland and the IDA are trusted partners in the context of work permits. Where companies are being supported by the aforementioned agencies, they will be recognised as having some form of a fast-track for dealing with permits.
At the same time however, the Government recognises that Ireland still is a country with high unemployment.

Many people are struggling to find skills. That is also true of the rest of the European Union. We have to make sure such people have the chance to avail of employment opportunities. This Bill strikes a balance between the needs of certain employers to recruit scarce skills and other sectors where there is an ample supply of skills at home. That is the background for the labour market needs tests, but in certain skilled occupations, such needs tests are lifted. It provides us with a flexible tool that allows us to respond to the challenges of a changing environment. Reference has been made to the war for talent, which drives many location decisions because the success of enterprises depends on the flow of change. We need to be in a position to ensure our enterprises can grow. One of the strengths of Ireland in recent years is the sheer variety of skills available here. We have a truly global environment in many areas, particularly in our cities, with a great mix of skills and backgrounds. That has created a good hub for starting and developing enterprises. We need to make sure we can retain that.

This Bill modernises our legislation but it also responds to a report on employment by the Joint Committee on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, the rapporteur for which was the former Senator, Deirdre Clune, MEP. The report identified this as an area in which we needed modern legislation that is capable of responding to changing needs. As this has been identified as an area that we need to modernise, I am glad to have the opportunity to present this Bill.

12:30 pm

Photo of Mary WhiteMary White (Fianna Fail)
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Fianna Fáil broadly supports the provisions of the Employment Permits (Amendment) Bill 2014. The purpose of the Bill is to amend and extend the Employment Permits Acts 2003 and 2006 to provide greater flexibility to deal with the ever-changing skills needs of businesses and the overall economic development needs of the Irish economy, which often require a rapid response. The Bill also provides for an improved employment permits regime with greater clarity, and updates provisions for the employment permits schemes in line policy and economic developments since 2007. In 2012 Senator Quinn put forward a Private Member's Bill entitled the Employment Permits (Amendment) Bill 2012. The Government did not oppose that Bill and allowed it to progress to Committee Stage. However, the Minister expressed his intention to deal with the matter comprehensively in this Bill and to advance ahead of the Senator's Bill, thereby fulfilling the primary objective of the latter. Inspired by Senator Quinn's Bill, the Employment Permits (Amendment) Bill 2014 affords foreign nationals a defence and relieves them of an offence where they have taken all reasonable steps to comply with the legislation.

We are all acutely aware of the importance of the information and communications technology sector to the Irish economy. If that sector is to thrive it is important it has the best possible range of skilled people available to recruit. It is important that the growth of the sector is not impeded by a lack of suitably skilled staff. In this regard the reduced processing time for permit applications is to be welcomed. Despite our continuing high rate of unemployment, Ireland is experiencing skills shortages in certain key areas. The employment permits regime is designed to encourage migration of non-EEA nationals with skills that are currently in short supply so that enterprise growth and the knock-on economic benefits of such growth are not curtailed by vacancies of key personnel in the short to medium term. These skills and labour shortages are in occupations in key economic sectors, such as health care, information technology and financial services. For this reason I welcome the Bill's focus on attracting highly skilled positions to the Irish economy, which will in turn generate growth in employment opportunities and expand the pool of talent and skills available in Ireland. The continued expansion of PayPal in Dundalk is a great example of this. It employs a large number of Irish people as well as people coming from abroad. Ireland needs cross-fertilisation of ideas among different nationalities if we are to induce creativity and innovation.

The Minister stated that his ambition is to fill three out of four vacancies in the ICT sector by graduates from Irish colleges by 2018. The design and delivery of information and communications technology courses at universities will be crucial to achieving this target. The history of third level courses in this country suggests that they have been slow to adapt to market needs and we must ensure they are not slow in this case. Every support should be given to people who are willing to go back to the education system and make themselves available to work in the ICT sector. When my husband worked in the IDA early in his career, he went to UCD to persuade it to gear up its computer courses because they were not sufficient to attract multinational computer companies.

I welcome that there is a new category of employment permit for spouses, civil partners and dependants to enable family members of holders of critical skills employment permits and researchers to work in the State. This issue arose in the context of the civil partnership legislation because it was regarded as important that an individual be able to take a partner with him or her when coming to work in Ireland. This is a crucial factor in encouraging people in civil partnerships to move to Ireland. When people are making the decision to relocate to take up an employment opportunity, they will need to consider many other factors, including whether their families can travel with them. This is an overdue reform and it should underpin the other provisions of the legislation.

In discussing the issue of making it attractive for people to come to Ireland to take up employment opportunities, there are other issues to consider besides the provision of employment visas. In particular, the cost of living increasingly influences people's decisions on where to locate. In the Grand Canal Dock area of Dublin, there is a large population of people working in the ICT sector for firms like Google, Facebook and eBay. There have been reports that many newly arrived persons looking to take up employment locally have encountered considerable difficulties in obtaining suitable accommodation at a reasonable price. While this issue is outside the scope of the Bill, it is none the less an important factor in ensuring we can fulfil the demand for ICT employees. Just as we need to get employment legislation, including permits, correct, we also need to ensure those who take up those jobs enjoy a good quality of life and standards of living.

I commend Mr. Barry O'Leary on his remarkable tenure as chief executive of the IDA and welcome the visionary appointment of Mr. Frank Ryan as its chairman. Over the years, Governments of all parties have supported the IDA in presenting the image of Ireland abroad as a safe and reliable country with which to do business. Now the remarkable debacle of Garth Brooks is tarnishing that image. We need an inquiry or investigation into the matter. This controversy has undermined all the good work done by the IDA over the years. We came through the bubble and the crisis but Mr. O'Leary was able to maintain investors' faith in and optimism for Ireland. It is important to put that on the record.

We will only emerge from the current crisis by developing our economy and looking for new ideas for job creation. In addressing this issue of employment permits we must also address the needs of those who come to this country to assist us in developing our economy. We should welcome them with open arms. In this regard, I pay tribute the remarkable approach by the former Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, to giving people Irish citizenship. He awarded citizenship to 4,000 people recently. They want to be Irish citizens and to participate in the economy. In the late 1990s, when the economy began to take off, we could not get people for Lir Chocolates and we had to be imaginative in getting people from abroad when it was not the thing to do. All the people who came to Lir Chocolates were outstanding staff and we are in debt to them. It gives me great pleasure.

Some 129 languages are spoken among the people who got citizenship the other day. It was important in our economic history that we joined the EU, thanks be to God, and we leapfrogged over Britain. I also think it is important to attract people from abroad with different skills and creativity from our own. Look at the problems that President Obama has because he cannot get Congress to agree. They need new skills there but the Congress will not support that.

I thank the Minister for bringing this Bill before the House.

12:40 pm

Photo of Martin ConwayMartin Conway (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister to the House and wish him well in the forthcoming changes that we are all eagerly awaiting. I will not repeat what the Minister has said about various sections of the Bill, which are essential house-keeping. We have seen the shortcomings and, as the Minister pointed out, there has been some case law in this regard. This legislation effectively tidies up the case law in reaction to loopholes that have been identified within that case law.
Over the years, we were all shocked and horrified to hear of illegal immigrants being exploited in work, be it collecting mushrooms or working in kitchens, the hospitality sector, warehouses or in back-rooms of certain minority businesses. It is wrong that they are here illegally, but their exploitation is even worse. They were paid a pittance, yet were expected to work double or triple the normal hours thus breaking the EU working time directive. When these stories hit the media, people were horrified.
In addition, due to loopholes in relevant case law, the exploiters got away with it. Two wrongs do not make a right, however, so we need to right those wrongs. Exploitation horrifies the vast majority of people. It is our duty and obligation to prevent exploitation however we can and wherever it occurs. The Bill is critical legislation. I assume that it is not being opposed by any part of the House.
We do not have a skills base in certain areas, including the ICT sector. When we need to acquire a skills base abroad so that our economy's architecture operates effectively, we must ensure it is both efficient and user-friendly, unlike so much in our society.
The Minister must be complimented on reorganising the permit structure which was described by those using it as being difficult, cumbersome, intimidating and not user-friendly. He has made significant progress in that regard. The Minister is also tying certain elements from other Departments into this legislation, particularly the justice area, which must also be welcomed.
I would like to have seen another provision in the Bill, although it is perhaps a matter for another day. It concerns students coming here to learn English who are allowed to get part-time jobs. We have seen the debacle with certain English-language schools closing and foreign students being left high and dry. That situation might need to be tightened up in future legislation.
We have also discussed ad nauseamthe issue of people in direct provision centres around the country. If people in direct provision have a skill to offer, they should be able to work and make a contribution to society, as well as paying their taxes. All too often, we hear about the undocumented illegal Irish in America and we all do our bit to campaign for them. To some extent, however, we should practice what we preach. There is a case for facilitating people in direct provision centres who have skills to offer. They should be able to exercise those skills, hopefully, in the not too distant future. I was very taken by a lady I met recently from a direct provision centre in Galway who had an unusual baking skill. Having listened to her story, I have no doubt that if she had the opportunity sell her produce she could make a good living for herself and her dependants. We need to look outside the box in this regard.
The legislation before us should get a swift passage through the House so that the Minister will be in a position to enact it soon.

Photo of Feargal QuinnFeargal Quinn (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister. He is getting fond of this House and seems to be coming in quite a lot in recent days. The Bill covers a range of issues related to employment permits. I welcome the fact that it addresses the loophole related to the dreadful treatment of Mr. Mohammed Younis who was exploited for years. This is what I tried to achieve through a Bill I introduced about 18 months ago, entitled the Employment Permits (Amendment) Bill, to which Senator White referred.

I felt that it fell to us as legislators to remedy the anomaly that affected certain non-national workers. That particular case was very sad. The person in question had been here for a number of years and had been treated almost like a slave. Given that his employer, to whom he was related, had kept his first-year work permit, it turned out that he was an illegal worker and was thus unable to address the issue with his employer.

I had my Bill examined by a number of experts who advised that it was watertight. That is why I was disappointed that the Bill was rejected by the Government on those grounds. While I will not directly accuse the Minister of plagiarism, he copied some of the wording from my Bill precisely. My wording in section 4A is almost the same as in the Bill before us. I am sure the Minister meant it as a form of flattery but I would have appreciated being credited. However, Senator White has gladly made up for that today.

It is a pity that legislation to protect workers such as Mr. Younis has taken so long. In the two years since my Bill was ready, many other cases of exploitation have probably occurred. I do not know for certain but it is quite likely that they have.

Under the terms of the Bill, it is welcome that there is an ability to seek some redress against employers who exploit employees. It will also allow undocumented workers to apply for a new work permit in cases where they have become undocumented through no fault of their own. I hope Mr. Younis will be able to get redress and that this Bill will set the conditions so that such cases will likely be reduced. If similar cases do occur, however, the employee will be put in a much stronger position. The Minister will say that part of his objective is to achieve that and I hope he will achieve it in this case.

The Minister referred to the ICT sector which we have debated here on a few occasions, as well as at the Joint Committee on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. As many as 5,000 job vacancies could be filled if we only had the requisite ICT skills. I am not sure that changing visa requirements alone will attract the necessary number of people to fill those vacancies.

We need a big change in our education system in this area. Neither the Department of Education and Skills nor the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation systematically collects, analyses and distributes information on jobs that students get after graduating. I have been involved with the Springboard scheme for a few years. It is interesting to go back and see how many people availed of that scheme. Springboard is the HEA body that identifies people with third level skills that may not be suitable for the moment, so they are steered on to other jobs. These critical data will help us to get people to study in areas like ICT. The collection of such data is absolutely crucial for policy-makers.

Some European countries, including the Netherlands and Italy, collect vital figures on jobs that graduates get. We should seek to emulate those models. These data are vital for future planning, especially in terms of youth employment and further education, but we are not currently collecting such data. Could the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation collect and publish data on what jobs graduates get?

I would like the Minister to comment on this. This is crucial when it comes to planning for further education and training so that students are directed to critical areas, such as ICT. This would be a concrete way to help to get people to study ICT and thus fill the massive shortages in this area. It would complement the recruitment of foreign nationals.
To further this idea, would the Minister consider the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation rating universities and higher education institutions on the success rate for graduates getting jobs? It would possibly encourage people to choose different universities, improve standards and encourage universities to offer courses following which there are job openings. I am glad the Minister is setting the conditions for interns and others to get hands-on experience in companies but in terms of filling the gaps in ICT, we should look at ideas in other countries. In 2010, South Korea created a network of vocational meisterschools. The word "meister" is the German word for master craftsman. It did that to address the country's shortage of machine operators and plumbers. It is interesting that the South Korean Government pays students' room and board as well as their tuition. We have a massive shortage of ICT professionals here. Could we consider something similar to address that skills gap? We know there is a skills gap but what are we doing to address it? We need to give some very specialised assistance to ICT. Giving incentives to foreign students in this area could improve the educational standards as well as getting them to stay on in Ireland and filling some of the vacancies.
There is a need for language skills for ICT jobs. When it comes to filling gaps in the ICT sector, one of the things that is missing is getting Irish people to speak foreign languages. Getting the ICT skills is fine but that is often not enough as the large ICT companies want ICT skills plus foreign language skills. We need to be innovative in this area. I hope I will be able to speak directly to the new Minister for Education and Skills and the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation about this issue.
I have always been very keen on this question of getting children to learn a foreign language. I think I told the Minister previously that my wife and I sent all our children to school in France for the summer term when they were approximately 13 years of age. There was only one problem in that the two girls fell in love with French men at the age of 13 and are now married to French men. We have a load of French speaking grandchildren, which is wonderful.
I have spoken here before, although maybe not to this Minister, about the Michel Thomas method of teaching a language because it breaks it down into component parts and enables learners to reconstruct the language. This is a British system, which is not unlike our Gaeltacht system. I never really developed my Gaeilge skills except when I went to the Gaeltacht and was immersed in and spoke the language. The Michel Thomas system, which is used in Britain a lot, is a wonderful one for people who have never learned to speak a foreign language. An article in The Guardianstated that he astounded staff at a school in north London by teaching a group of teenagers deemed incapable of learning languages. In one week, they learned the amount of French it normally takes five years to acquire. The Minister and I have attended French classes. We have not become fluent enough to be able to handle everything, although maybe the Minister has. I would like to think we were capable of doing that.
The No. 1 way to learn languages outside of school in the UK is now the Michel Thomas method. Has the Minister come across this method? Would there be a possibility to trial the method in some of our schools or even in the workplace? It is a method that must be given serious consideration. I remember when Hewlett Packard or another company announced that it had 50 jobs on offer and it was asked what skills were required. It mentioned the skills but it also said the ability to speak a modern foreign language. One of the reporters said that no Irish need apply because we are just not very good at them. We really must do something about that. I know it is not this Minister's baby but it should be part of his remit and whoever takes over as Minister for Education and Skills.
I would like to see big tax breaks for companies to buy language lessons for their employees and give them one to two hours off per week to do the classes. Would the Minister be open to a tax break in this area? That would be a massive statement to the outside world that Ireland is serious about its workforce upskilling and it would mean a large number of Irish people could fill ICT vacancies. Will the Minister comment on the idea of utilising a language teaching method, such as the Michel Thomas method? I have never met Michel Thomas but it seems the system is amazing.
Along with getting skilled foreign workers and easing the employment permits process, we must look at upskilling existing workers and getting the concrete data on what jobs graduates get. That is crucial to directing people to areas where there are massive shortages, such as in the ICT sector. The Minister has identified these shortages and is working on them. We must really concentrate on them over the next couple of years because I think we can work wonders. I congratulate the Minister on the Bill, which is worthy of support.

12:50 pm

Photo of John KellyJohn Kelly (Labour)
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I welcome the Minister and the legislation. I compliment the Minister on the way he addressed this issue in a very clear and concise way. This legislation is about reform of the way we deal with employment permits and makes it more focused on our ever increasing needs and demands. I will not go into the same level of detail as the Minister but we had four work permits, which will be replaced by nine. The green card has gone and will be replaced by a critical skills employment permit. I welcome the reactivation employment permit for those whose permits expire or whose work come to an end.

I compliment Senator Quinn for initiating this back in November 2012. It was quite clear Mohammed Younis was the victim of a miscarriage of justice. He was exploited by an employer for seven years and when he brought it to the attention of the authorities, the rights commissioner found in his favour but that was overruled by the High Court and as a result, this young man was not in a position to get compensation. If this issue arises following the enactment of this legislation, compensation will be available.

I agree with Senator White about the Garth Brooks debacle but I do not think he was refused a visa to come to this country. However, I know of a man who is having great difficulty getting a visa to come to this country. He is not looking for a work permit. He is an Iraqi-born businessman who has lived in Saudi Arabia all his life. He is an extremely wealthy man and he has highlighted the need for at least 40,000 houses in Saudi Arabia. A company in Galway manufactures these houses, which are affordable, and it has a showroom in Monaghan. This man needs to visit Ireland for four days to visit the showroom. He applied for a visa but was refused. The reason he was refused is that in 2008, GMIT invited him to speak in the college. When he applied for a visa, the courier in Saudi Arabia delivered his application to the British Embassy by mistake. He was refused a visa by the British Embassy so when he applied for a visa to visit Ireland, he was refused because he had been previously refused a visa by another embassy in 2008.

This is not directly the responsibility of this Minister but there is supposed to be inter-departmental co-operation between the Department of Justice and Equality and the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. I suggest the Minister should have a greater role in cases like this because there seems to be a view that when somebody from a Middle Eastern country is looking for a visa that they have ulterior motives for being for doing so.

I assure the House the individual in question does not have an ulterior motive. He wants to invest millions of euro in an Irish company and create jobs but is being blocked from doing so by the Department of Justice and Equality. It takes between 12 and 14 weeks for that Department to make a decision on a visa application. An applicant may then be refused on the basis that there is history. Further, a return ticket is not considered sufficient evidence that an individual plans to return home. What type of evidence does the Department expect people to produce? Jobs are a major issue. I hope the Minister will take a hands on approach to the Department of Justice and Equality and ensure the circumstances I describe are not repeated.

1:00 pm

Photo of Jillian van TurnhoutJillian van Turnhout (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister to the House and applaud and congratulate him on the ratification by Ireland today of the International Labour Organization's convention on domestic workers. This is a landmark day for workers' rights, migrants rights and human rights. All too often, we speak about the position of the Irish abroad without making the connection to migrants who come here. This is a proud day and I acknowledge the work of the Migrant Rights Centre of Ireland and Domestic Workers Action Group. I also acknowledge the Minister's work in making this day happen and thank him that we have at last ratified this convention.

The Bill addresses some important issues. All too often, the environment is an enabling factor in the abuse of workers and migrant rights, which many of us have seen at first hand. Senators will be aware of the case of Muhammad Younis, the details of which have been outlined in the House by me, Senator Quinn and other Senators. The Bill takes a pragmatic approach to address and modernise our employment laws and, I hope, force out cases of forced labour, which amounts to modern day slavery.

Reading through the Bill brought me back to my experience in the private sector. People think of me as having been involved solely in children's rights, whereas I was a private sector employer for more than 15 years before working in the Children's Rights Alliance. At that time, we found it made more financial sense for us to pay for a highly skilled staff member to fly home to South Africa and renew her work permit at the Irish embassy there than have her go through the procedure here, despite both facilities being State run. The decision to bring employment permits into line and provide for a system of transferring them is a very good one. I also welcome the amendments being introduced to address the case of Mr. Younis and measures relating to migrants. It is welcome to see a Minister link up with other Ministers and portfolios. In that respect, the work being done jointly by the Minister and Minister for Justice and Equality to address deficiencies in the immigration system is very welcome.

I propose to raise the issue of au pairs, which cannot be addressed in the Bill because it falls between many different portfolios. The idea behind having au pairs is to provide for a cultural exchange and I have no difficulties with the system when that is the case. The problem, however, as highlighted by organisations such as the Migrant Rights Centre, is that women are frequently trafficked into the country as au pairs to do domestic chores for in excess of 50 hours per week. This does not reflect the idea behind au pairing, nor does it amount to a cultural exchange. Many au pairs, primarily women, are not vetted and are working with children. Everybody loses out when there is no system of regulation in place. The individuals in question are often not paid or paid a pittance. I have met women who have been locked into houses and abused. I find it very upsetting that these practices are taking place in my country. When one raises this issue, one is told that au pairs do not fit in anywhere because the issue is not an employment matter and does not fall within the area of tourism. We must identify where it fits because the issue of au pairs will have to be addressed, especially as the economy picks up.

The Bill has my full support and I congratulate the Minister on bringing many different elements together in legislation that will regularise employment and ensure people are treated as equal in the workplace. This is something for which all of us stand. I thank the Minister for his work.

Photo of Kathryn ReillyKathryn Reilly (Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the Minister to the House. Sinn Féin wholeheartedly supports this important Bill. I, too, commend the work done by Senator Quinn on this issue and in highlighting the case at the centre of the legislation. As Senators will be aware, in 2012, Mr. Justice Hogan found that existing employment permits legislation left undocumented migrant employees of rogue employers in a precarious position. It is important, therefore, that we recognise again the role of Mr. Muhammad Younis, whose case is at the heart of the legislation. The Younis case and similar cases should not have come as a revelation because the Migrant Rights Centre had been highlighting the relevant loophole in the legislation since 2006. That said, the measures being taken by the Minister are welcome.

The American Chamber of Commerce Ireland has also welcomed the provisions of the Bill. Broadening the eligibility for highly skilled occupations will boost companies with a heavy reliance on niche skill sets, including fluency in less common languages. Accelerating recruitment processes by reducing bureaucracy and enabling senior executives to be based in Ireland for the initial stages of a start-up will aid foreign direct investment. Introducing such flexibility in the system makes sense.

The Bill will be welcomed by advocacy groups, particularly as it relates to employment permits and, in exceptional circumstances, to carers and medical professionals caring for people with severe medical conditions or where a person has developed a high level of dependence on a migrant worker.

As discussed, we would like a provision to be introduced to provide for the waiving of fees in cases of hardship involving applicants who are seeking to renew permits but cannot afford the fee. The Migrant Rights Centre has highlighted the cost of obtaining a work permit, as has the European Committee of Social Rights which considers the fees charged to be excessive.

While I do not wish to go over some of the ground covered by previous speakers, I will briefly add to Senator van Turnhout's comments on the working environment for au pairs and their rights in this country. Traditionally, au pairs were young people who took part in a cultural or language exchange programme for a limited period. Increasingly, however, they are being recruited as carers of children, the elderly and people with disabilities or for domestic work. While protected under existing employment legislation, most au pairs are not aware of the rights afforded to them and most employers are not aware of their responsibilities to them. Au pairs are a sizeable group of highly vulnerable workers that is being increasingly exploited. These workers are paid below the minimum wage and do not receive basic entitlements. In recent years, demand for au pairs has increased as working families find it difficult to pay for child care. While the code of practice for protecting persons employed in other people's homes was introduced and placed on a statutory footing on 2007, I am not certain it is being enforced. Moreover, it does not provide in full for the experience of au pairs.

Anomalies arise in the labour market and these irregularities must not be allowed to go unchallenged and unchecked. Sinn Féin supports the call by the Migrant Rights Centre for an immediate and co-ordinated response to ensure the employment rights of workers are upheld and enforced, with a particular emphasis on recruitment agencies and direct employees. In saying this, I welcome the legislation and congratulate the Minister and Senator Quinn on their work in producing it.

Photo of Richard BrutonRichard Bruton (Dublin North Central, Fine Gael)
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I thank Senators for their contributions. Senator Mary White correctly noted that the cross-fertilisation of ideas and creation of an environment of mixed skills are an important part of delivering the type of vibrant environment in which new companies grow. This is very much in evidence and is the way in which the economy needs to be developed. Countries cannot hope to fill all the skills requirements in the economy. An obvious case in point is languages. Even more important, however, is the issue of outlook.

Photo of Mary WhiteMary White (Fianna Fail)
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Genetics and intermarriage are also important.

Photo of Richard BrutonRichard Bruton (Dublin North Central, Fine Gael)
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I will not get into that tricky territory.

I also thank her for her kind words regarding Mr. Barry O'Leary's role in the past number of years. There is no doubt his focus and drive within IDA Ireland has been a very important asset and the half-year results for IDA Ireland published on Monday speak for themselves. Under his guidance, this will be the fourth-best year for the agency and the best in a decade. I also express my appreciation for the Senator's support for the appointment of Mr. Frank Ryan, who is a fantastic public servant with great experience. He comes from many years of stewarding Enterprise Ireland and he brings an important insight to the interplay between IDA Ireland companies and Enterprise Ireland firms. We must break down those barriers and see the two as mutually reinforcing so as to develop supply complementary supply chains. He has an important role.
As the Senator noted, this legislation is welcome. To be fair to the higher education sector, when we took office we set the target of doubling the number of ICT graduates and that goal is already in sight. We have set a higher target for 2018. The sector is responding, although the response may need to go broader and deeper not just in the ICT sectors, but in other areas which may not be as well organised. One of the strengths of the ICT sector is that it can guarantee placement positions because of density and organisation. Springboard courses have been exceptionally successful in ICT and we need to see that sort of approach expanded to other sectors, where we can develop better links between employers and the institutes of higher education in order to get relevant skills. Many Senators would have come across some discontent with the level of skills coming out, and this is one way to ensure an improvement.
Senator Conway correctly raised the issue of exploitation, which many other Senators would also highlight. I apologise for not giving due credit to Senator Quinn in my opening remarks, as there is no doubt that his work was very important. We had to be careful of the law of unintended consequences, as there was a fear that the way in which the Senator formulated his legislation, particularly with regard to making illegal contracts legal, so to speak, would have had some unintended consequences. Although it mirrors some of the Senator's formulation, this Bill is different in its composition for good reasons.
Senator Conway also raised a concern about students of language schools. I know this is a concern but the matter falls to the Department of Justice and Equality rather than my own area, as such students would not have work permits but a student visa which allows them work for 20 hours. We do not issue work permits to them so it would not come under this legislation. The Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service, INIS, has intervened where there has been a concern about certain colleges, and it has also dealt with students affected by closures in a humanitarian way. We need to strengthen our reputation in this respect, as an area of opportunity is in a robust, quality education offering, and we must protect that by ensuring any provision is substantive and to a high quality.
As well as dealing with the important case which was the subject of his own legislation, Senator Quinn recognised that we are introducing a retrospective element allowing persons in the period from which he initiated his Bill to the passing of this Bill to have the opportunity to take claims. This is not retrospective law because the Bill is essentially making the provision that work done which should have been remunerated to at least the minimum wage ought to have such remuneration paid. As I understand it, this retroactive operation does not contravene any principles of fair play.
Senator Quinn had interesting comments about promoting new ways of encouraging outsiders to take up courses here and having new methods of teaching. This is relevant and I certainly look forward to the development of trainee programmes and apprenticeships by the SOLAS board. It is top of the agenda and there is now an approved new model of apprenticeships designed to go well beyond the traditional, which were largely construction-related skills, into new areas. Trainee programmes will be offered as a more flexible on and off-job model, and that will be an essential issue. We allowed the grass to grow under our feet in some respects during the boom time, and some of the FÁS work was not sufficiently focused on these emerging skills. We must reassert those elements, and the new SOLAS board has an appetite to do so.
I agree with the Senator that we must rate the outcome of different courses. I will ask the future skills group, which spans both my Department and the Department of Education and Skills, if we can get that data. I have seen some data of that nature, mixed in quality, and it is interesting. Science graduates do not do particularly well, which is surprising, and it seems one must be in technology, engineering and mathematics because those graduates are in scarce supply. The Senator is correct in saying that students should see more of a course outcome in order to make choices on a more informed basis. We can see what data can be obtained, and I am sure the Higher Education Authority can play a significant role in this respect.
Interestingly, there is a tax break for language, although it is from old God's time. I remember it was introduced in the 1980s and I have just checked it. The limit for the tax relief to be claimed is €1,270 and perhaps it has fallen into disuse. It was for ICT and foreign languages in the 1980s. The advantage of an existing scheme is that it is easier to expand it rather than getting the Department of Finance to introduce a new scheme. Maybe there is an opportunity to prise the door open if we can show the tax relief is generating some interesting activity. We will have to see if there is a demand from employers and workers.
There is no doubt in my mind that there is a big gap in Ireland in international selling skills, which takes in selling and languages. We need to get the finger out in developing international selling skills. Everybody likes to do marketing but nobody seems to want to do the selling. Selling is what butters the parsnips. Senator Kelly mentioned an individual and I will get his name later. There are some officials from the Department of Justice and Equality with us because we are handling some justice issues with the Bill, so they can follow up the issue.
I thank Senators for their compliments for the domestic workers convention. It is a significant landmark and it was great to see the enthusiasm of those directly affected and who campaigned for this when we formally publicised the signing of the convention. Senators also raised the issue of au pairs, which is of some concern. There is no doubt that cultural exchange used to welcomed and it has never required a work permit. Nevertheless, incidents of exploitation can arise, and the National Employment Rights Authority, NERA, works close with the Migrant Rights Centre of Ireland, which indicates cases for inspection. NERA has pursued and prosecuted some cases, so it is very much aware that a boundary can be crossed.

It is not acceptable to transgress on people's rights in the name of cultural exchange.
We will pick up whatever issues remain on Committee Stage. I thank Senators for their support for this Bill, which has been uniform. I look forward to the passage of this Bill. It will provide us with modern legislation that is flexible and recognises the needs of people who are looking for work. It factors in our ambition to fill as many posts as we can through our education system and by the development of that education system. It also recognises in a fast-changing global environment that employers must be able to get the necessary skills and if those skills are to be found outside the European Union, we should facilitate that.
I thank the officials who have worked to get this Bill through and to modernise legislation which, as Senator Conway said, grew like Topsy with ad hocpieces added on here and there. It needed to be properly organised and that is now being done. The officials are also delivering a quality service which is continually improving against a background of diminishing resources.

Question put and agreed to.

1:20 pm

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Photo of Martin ConwayMartin Conway (Fine Gael)
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It is proposed to take Committee and Remaining Stages next Wednesday, 16 July.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Committee Stage ordered for Wednesday, 16 July 2014.

Sitting suspended at 2.55 p.m. and resumed at 3.15 p.m.