Call to reform work permits to end low-pay ‘indentured servitude’

Call to reform work permits to end low-pay ‘indentured servitude’
Labour senator Kevin Humphreys

By Pádraig Hoare

The work permits system is in need of reform as it creates “indentured servitude” by tying some non-EU workers to their employees.

That is according to Labour senator Kevin Humphreys, who was speaking at an Oireachtas business committee hearing into the skills needs for businesses and workers in the future.

Mr Humphreys said it is currently like indentured servitude — where historically, poor workers had to ‘earn’ their freedom from employers — because some workers from outside the EU were relying on retaining their job to keep their visas.

He said there are boning workers in the meat industry on €22,000 a year, and that some employees feel afraid to speak up about conditions for fear of losing their jobs.

Committee chair Mary Butler said it had made recommendations that work permits should go with the worker rather than the employer.

Irish Congress of Trade Unions (Ictu) industrial officer Peter Rigney said there are provisions for work permits in both the high-skill and low-skill sectors of the economy, but that it is in the latter category that controversy arises.

“There has to be a balance between a desire by some employers to recruit additional skills and a desire by other employers to depress wages,” he said.

“It is perplexing to see certain employers describing difficulties in recruitment in certain sectors and almost in the same breath stating that work permits in these sectors should have pay rates pitched at no more than the minimum wage.”

In relation to apprenticeships, Mr Rigney said people will seek to enter occupations which have good wages and progression rates.

“They will tolerate low wages while learning in order to have long-term access to knowledge and skills. People will not remain in low-wage, low-prospect occupations.”

Ibec head of education and social policy Tony Donohoe told the committee that perceptions of apprenticeships have to change in order to thrive.

“We have to acknowledge the reality that apprenticeships, and vocational education in general, tend not to enjoy parity of esteem in a society that tends to define educational achievement in terms of CAO points and entry to higher education,” he said.

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