ROGUE employers had to fork out more than €1 million to workers in the two-year period to March 2008.
And the Migrant Rights Centre of Ireland, which recovered the money on behalf of workers, claims it is only the tip of the iceberg.
During the 24-month period, the centre helped workers to submit 300 official complaints to the state, and as a result 177 workers received settlements and awards of €1,028,000 for back wages and other violations of employment rights.
The highest award was €116,000 to a Pakistani restaurant worker found to have been working in appalling conditions for five years, earning just €150 per week — of which €100 was deducted by the employer for accommodation.
The worker told the Labour Relations Commission he had virtually no days off and his employer held his passport and threatened to revoke his work permit and deport him if he complained.
More than half of the 177 workers who received payments were involved in agriculture, with a third working in restaurants. Large numbers were working as domestic workers in private homes and as contract cleaners.
Of the total, 28% of the workers were Latvian, 21% Lithuanian and 10% Ukrainian. Other sizeable nationalities involved included Chinese, Thai, Filipino and Pakistani; 58% were women and 42% men.
While there is a predominance of EU-worker cases, according to Bill Abom of the Migrant Rights Centre, the worst cases tend to happen with people who are non-EU because they are afraid of being deported.
“It takes a long time for people to break through the fear, to get the information. A lot are on work permits. It is like a noose around the worker’s neck, because if he complains he may not get a renewal of the work permit or someone else to take it on,” Mr Abom said.
He said labour inspectors showing up at a workplace are not going to know of abuses because the employer will often be able to mask what is happening, unless the worker has the confidence to step forward.
“In our opinion there is no easy solution to workplace exploitation,” he said.
“We have been pushing for the department to send out employment rights information with every work permit, to make them be posted up in work places and to enforce Employment Regulation Orders. I have been in hundreds of restaurants and on farms and no rights are posted.”
He told how on one mushroom farm in Tipperary, workers used a clocking-in system. “They were working 60-65 hours per week, but paid for 40.”
The centre’s director, Siobhán O’Donoghue, said: “We are just scratching the surface of an ongoing and serious problem faced by migrant workers in low-wage sectors in Ireland.
“If a small organisation such as the [Migrant Rights Centre] is able to recover such amounts, we are confident there are many more experiencing this level of exploitation.”
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