Employment Permits (Amendment) Bill 2012: Second Stage

29th November 2012

I welcome the Minister of State to the House and begin by joining everybody else in commending Senator Quinn for his initiative in bringing forward this important and necessary Bill. I echo the words of Senator Byrne as this debate forms part of the role of this House, and we are here to legislate. The debates we have should inform the legislation, and today’s Bill is a sign we are getting down to business.

I wholeheartedly support the Bill and its purpose. Unfortunately, forced labour is alive and well in Ireland, as is clearly demonstrated by the shocking exploitation of Mohammad Younis and our laws, albeit unintentionally, protecting the perpetrators. The High Court was correct in law to overturn the determination of the Labour Court to award over €90,000 to Mr. Mohammad Younis for alleged breaches of his employment rights, including threats, payment “well below” the minimum wage, the imposition of extremely long working hours of 77 hours per week with insufficient breaks and no day off and the failure to renew Mr Younis’s work permit, thus rendering him undocumented in the State and extremely vulnerable to the exploitation and mistreatment meted against him. Senator Quinn very clearly elaborated on Mr. Younis’s case.

The High Court was correct in law because as set out in section 2 of the Employment Permits Act 2003 finds that Mr Younis does not have a valid and legal work permit and as such cannot benefit from relief in respect of an employment contract. It was correct in law but it was not just and right; part of the law should make circumstances just and right. It is clear that Mr. Justice Hogan recognised this, and in overturning the award made by the Labour Court, he stated that Mr Younis “has been the victim of the most appalling exploitation in respect of which he has no effective remedy”. As colleagues have noted, Mr. Justice Hogan further felt compelled to send a copy of his decision to the Ceann Comhairle, the Cathaoirleach and the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Richard Bruton.

I appreciate that the Department is currently working with the Office of the Attorney General to examine options to address the lacuna in the Employment Permits Act 2003 arising out of the High Court decision. Having carefully considered the Bill, it seems to be a viable and immediate option at our disposal to plug the legislative gap, which in real terms means protecting very vulnerable workers from exploitation by unscrupulous employers. This is not an issue that has the luxury of the time it can often take for the legislative process to deliver. It is an immediate problem.

The Migrant Rights Centre of Ireland currently has 30 cases of exploited workers in precarious positions with work permits at various stages before the Labour Relations Commission. Clarity, certainty and legal protection must be brought as a matter of absolute urgency to these people. I urge all Members to support the Bill before us.

Before concluding it would be remiss of me not to point out that while the lacuna in the law to which this amendment purports to remedy was unforeseen or unintentional in its impact, there is no room for suggesting that this Government is unaware of the negative and dangerous consequences of its failure to legislate against forced labour either as a solitary offence or by amending the Criminal Law (Human Trafficking) Act 2008 to define forced labour. The current legislative protections afforded through ordinary criminal offences such as false imprisonment, blackmail, assault, coercion, or the immigration or health and safety law are not appropriate or sufficient given the profile of the victims and the likelihood that they will have neither the knowledge of nor the confidence to evoke these protections.

A law or a clearly defined provision on forced labour in existing legislation would give victims confidence and act as a deterrent to their exploiters, which is increasingly necessary, with anecdotal evidence suggesting that the recession is leading to greater recourse to very cheap or free labour by unscrupulous employers. I use today’s debate on this Bill to call on the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, to publish the publish the International Labour Organisation’s report on criminalising forced labour in Ireland, which I understand sought to assess what Ireland would need to do to become fully compliant with, among others, the ILO forced and compulsory labour and abolition of forced labour conventions, the United Nations Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery; and Article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The report exists – let us publish it. With 160 cases of forced labour in the past six years and rising, according to the Migrant Rights Centre, I also call for a wider Seanad debate on forced labour in Ireland.

I thank Senator Quinn for introducing this Bill. It is discreet legislation that protects vulnerable workers from exploitation by unscrupulous employers. We need to pass this Bill, but it is only the first step towards ensuring that we send a clear message to the effect that Ireland does not tolerate forced labour. We cannot lecture other countries about forced labour while tolerating it on our own doorstep.

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