Seanad debates

Thursday, 6 December 2018

Commencement Matters

Work Permits Applications

10:30 am

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Mitchell O'Connor.

Photo of Neale RichmondNeale Richmond (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State and thank her very much for taking this Commencement matter. This is an issue she might be familiar with both in the context of her current brief and a previous portfolio. I have raised this issue and the delays in processing work permits on a number of occasions. However, I would specifically like to refer to the stamp 3 system. This week it was announced that our unemployment rate has dropped to 5.3%, which is a phenomenal achievement, and we are on course to achieve full employment in 2019.

However, the unemployment rate for those seeking stamp 3 visa holders is a whopping 93%. Many of the stamp 3 visa holders work in industries that are currently trying to recruit and where their skills are badly needed, such as information technology, finance, health, education and hospitality. I have just come from a meeting with a very large-scale technology company which is unable to fill more than 1,000 positions it announced last year simply because it cannot recruit people in Ireland or in the EU and it needs stamp 3 visa holders to fill these jobs.

With the threat of Brexit looming and many companies looking to Ireland to expand, companies need to be aware that they can find the skilled workers they require in Ireland. If these workers are stuck in limbo and unable to contribute to our economy, this will be a serious issue for Ireland post-Brexit and into the future. We must be pro-active and address the situation before it escalates to new levels. Ireland is a global economy and this must be clear to those looking to live, work and grow their businesses here.

Moreover, an estimated 80% of stamp 3 visa holders are women. This is a clear loss to our economy. We are not only losing out on the skills and talents of these stamp 3 visa holders, of which more than 90% hold a bachelors' degree and almost 50% hold a masters degree, we are also losing out on their tax contributions. Stamp 3 visa holders are also exempt from our social welfare system and must pay non-EU fees for our higher education institutions. This is not a suitable environment for those who are residing legally in our country. This is seriously affecting the well-being of those we allow into Ireland with more than 90% of those surveyed experiencing low self-esteem due to their lack of access to education and personal development.

Stamp 3 visa holders are not allowed to work in Ireland but are allowed to look for work. Currently, applicants for work permits are forced to wait eight to 12 weeks for their applications to be processed. Additionally, the application for a work permit must be received 12 weeks prior to the start of the employment period. This leads to job offers being withdrawn and the applicants feeling as if they are tourists in a place where they are legally residing. Many employers are not aware of the fact that stamp 3 visa holders are permitted to work. This fact is not made clear on the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service, INIS, website and can further hinder stamp 3 visa holders chances of finding work if they are even considered for roles in the first place.

This is not a tenable situation for Ireland. It is not fair nor is it to our benefit. In other EU countries, this is not an issue and it should not be one here. The stamp 3 visa system clearly need to be reformed as well as the waiting time for work permit applications, which I have raised before. This will allow Ireland and our economy to live up to its potential for employees and employers alike. For every business that chooses not to open in Ireland and where a stamp 3 visa holder cannot access a work permit, we are losing out on valuable skills and contributions to our economy. When we allow people to reside legally in Ireland, they should feel welcomed, not ostracised. Forcing these people to live in limbo or untenable situations is not fair and is not the Ireland we should want to portray to the world. This cannot and should not continue for all of our benefit.

Photo of Mary Mitchell O'ConnorMary Mitchell O'Connor (Dún Laoghaire, Fine Gael)
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I thank Senator Richmond. I am aware of all the very good work he is doing with businesses. He has put forward a very good argument on the stamp 3 visa process. I have been in the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation, but I am taking this Commencement matter for the Minister, Deputy Humphreys.

Immediate family members, that is, dependants, partners and spouses, of critical skills employment permit holders have very broad access to the Irish labour market through the dependant-partner-spouse employment permit. The dependant-partner-spouse employment permit is uniquely available to the families of critical skills employment permit holders as part of the Government’s policy to promote Ireland’s attractiveness as a location for highly skilled workers.

The criteria attaching to this permit type is substantially less demanding than for other employment permit types, that is, the application process is free of charge; all jobs are eligible, except for domestic occupations; remuneration must be at or above the national minimum wage; and their prospective employer is not required to undertake a labour market needs test.

However, the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, appreciates that the process is not as streamlined as it should be for family members of critical skilled employment permit holders who are stamp 3 holders accessing the labour market. Officials in the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation and the Department of Justice and Equality have met with representatives of stamp 3 permission holders to hear their concerns. The resolution of this matter falls within the remits of both the Minister's Department and the Department of Justice and Equality.

The Minister, Deputy Humphreys, has asked her officials, in co-operation with the Department of Justice and Equality, to examine the issues that have been reported, including improving the information available for these prospective employment permit holders and their employers. In the short term these measures include: the introduction of a letter of support for stamp 3 permission holders to issue to successful critical skills employment permit applicants setting out the options regarding the employment permits process; the provision of up-to-date and clear information on both Departments' websites about this permit type; a revision of the frequently asked questions, FAQs, document on the Department’s website; and a leaflet on this issue is being drafted for representative bodies, NGOs and other stakeholders.

In addition, officials of both Departments are consulting on possibilities for streamlining the process for granting permission to work for this cohort of people as recommended in the Review of Economic Migration Policy 2018.

Proposals are currently being prepared for consideration by the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, and her colleague, the Minister for Justice and Equality.

Photo of Neale RichmondNeale Richmond (Fine Gael)
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I am very grateful to the Minister of State for her remarks, which are welcome and provide a lot of information. I am hopeful in terms of the work that will be done between the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, and their Departments. Much of this feeds into the Minister of State's current role, particularly in the higher education sector, when we consider the many people coming here and the fees they face.

On the proposals, there needs to be third discussion that is reactive and, crucially, swift. I received a petition last week signed by more than 6,000 people who are affected by this issue. I passed it on to the Taoiseach and I look forward to the follow-up meeting with the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, but we need swift reform. I cannot state firmly enough that this is not just about realising the economic potential, which is so obvious to our country as we seek to be that island at the centre of the world. We have a responsibility on a human level. I mentioned in my earlier remarks that I met this morning with representatives of a very large technology company that is struggling to fill positions. It now finds itself opening up for coffee just that the spouses will have somewhere to go because they feel isolated, unable to work and unable to truly integrate in our society.

Photo of Mary Mitchell O'ConnorMary Mitchell O'Connor (Dún Laoghaire, Fine Gael)
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I will pass on the Senator's arguments to the Minister, Deputy Humphreys. The view of the Minister and the Government is that having an efficient and responsive employment permit is a critical lever in addressing the economy's skills needs. We work hard, as the Senator has acknowledged, to attract and retain international talent. The Senator has come up with a very important proposal and I will follow it up with the Minister, Deputy Humphreys.