Ireland Continues To Exploit Migrant Workers

Migrant workers are being exploited in Irish restaurants. Photo Credit snowpea&bokchoi (Flikr)
Migrant workers are being exploited in Irish restaurants. Photo Credit snowpea&bokchoi (Flikr)
Migrant workers are being exploited in Irish restaurants. Photo Credit snowpea&bokchoi (Flikr)

Céad Mile Failte? Not if you’re here to work.

The exploitation of migrant workers in Ireland is commonplace. The ability for employers to choose, use and abuse foreign workers can lead to harsh working conditions for some of the most vulnerable people in our society who have come here seeking a better life.

Sergio (not his real name) from Venezuela works as a chef for 28 hours a week in a busy Dublin hotel. As an international student learning English, he is only legally permitted to work for 20 hours a week. ‘I’m rostered to work 4 days a week, but when the kitchen closes, I have to clean up.’ He isn’t paid for the overtime.

Sergio is not alone. Migrant workers make up 35% of the total service industry workforce. On minimum wage, he receives €170 a week. ‘I’d make more money if I worked illegally,’ he says. There are currently up to 20,000 undocumented workers in Ireland today.

In fact, he does work illegally; he has to. Cash in hand doing menial, low paying work, Sergio takes on extra jobs – whatever they are and whenever he can – to stay afloat. On top of attending lectures for 16 hours a week, it leaves him little time to explore the country he came to over a year ago. He hasn’t been outside of Dublin yet.

A 2012 survey of 120 migrant workers in restaurants carried out by the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland (MRCI) found that 80% had no contract of employment. 88% have never been visited by a labour inspector. Half worked six or more days a week.

Exploitation of migrant workers is prevalent throughout the country as immigration and residency status is dependent on employers. The threat of removing legal working status forces some migrants to agree to extremely difficult working conditions. It is a fundamental abuse of power.

Workers in the restaurant sector make up a huge proportion of low pay wages. The sector is almost completely non-unionised. Horror stories have emerged recently about the state of the Irish restaurant industry – which annually contributes €6 billion to the economy.

75 hour working weeks, no breaks, no overtime, no Sunday premium pay;  no bank holiday pay, no annual leave, wages as little as two euro an hour and threats of deportation are just some of the complaints received by the MRCI recently. Combined with the lack of knowledge of rights and the language barrier makes migrants even more vulnerable.

Ireland has one of the highest proportions of low pay workers in the EU.  Including take-outs and cafés, the restaurant industry in Ireland has over 6,000 outlets, employing over 40,000 people. It plays a vital role in Ireland’s economic recovery.

With the recession came a downturn in job prospects for those seeking employment, especially for migrant workers. A study by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) and Equality Authority in 2009 found that migrant workers with similar skills and experience to Irish nationals were less likely to be called for an interview by employers because of the name given on their CV. Foreign-sounding names were significantly less likely to secure interviews than Irish-sounding names.

Migration is an ever-present fact of the 21st century; be it due to war, famine, persecution or seeking employment. With an estimated one million people born here living elsewhere, Ireland is no stranger to emigration.

The latest figures from the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) show that 17.5% (or one in six) of the Irish population over 15 live abroad today. Ireland tops the list of the 34 countries in the OECD, outranking New Zealand, Portugal and Mexico. The mass exodus or ‘brain drain’ from these shores by its working population needs to be replenished.

However the onset of the recession caused the number of migrants arriving here to work to fall dramatically. Between 2008 and 2009, the number of non-Irish nationals applying for a Personal Public Service (PPS) numbers fell by 50%. Between 2011 and 2012, that number fell by 66%. Only recently has there been a small rise in immigration (including Irish nationals) of 8.4%. Less than one in five of those arriving in Ireland are unemployed. It is a myth that migrants come here to seek benefits.

It is not just employers who treat migrant workers harshly.  Non-EEA workers can only receive benefits from the State if they are legally resident, regardless of whether they have made Pay Related Social Insurance payments. It will also hurt their chances for citizenship if they start claiming benefits. Because of this, many are discouraged from claiming welfare, even if they need it.

Some redress has been attempted by the Government recently. The Employment Permit (Amendment) Act 2014 allows for undocumented workers to take civil action against employers for owed wages and compensation. It’s ‘a huge step forward’, according to Edel McGinley of MRCI, however ‘much more needs to be done’ to stop the exploitation of migrants.