Situating Migrant Workers in the Future of Work Agenda

December 17, 2019

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by Edel McGinley, Migrant Rights Centre Ireland

The Carnegie UK Trust-TASC Ensuring Good Future Jobs essay collection describes many of the key challenges faced by workers in Ireland today, and proposes a series of policy and practice changes to ensure good future jobs. First published on 28 November, as a coordinated response to the Irish Government’s first Future Jobs Strategy, this blog series showcases the contributions by key social partners in Ireland to the collection.

In the Future Jobs Ireland Strategy (2019), the focus on quality jobs, the transition to more sustainable work and a low-carbon economy is laudable. However, it does not fully reflect the complexity of Ireland’s labour market. It fails to acknowledge that Ireland is a low-waged economy, with 20% of people working in low pay; that precarity is a key feature of our current labour market; and the migrant labour is now the backbone of many of Ireland’s key industries and local communities, with essential high intensity jobs regularly performed by migrants. There are also growing concerns about the racialisation and stratification of Ireland’s labour market which needs to be addressed.

In the future of work, we need to ask hard questions of certain sectors. Are they economically viable when they are built on the back of the exploitation of migrant labour? The fishing industry is a case in point. Research carried out by MRCI into the experience of migrant fishers revealed widespread exploitation in certain segments of the industry (MRCI, 2017):

  • A majority (65%) work more than 100 hours a week
  • Average pay is just €2.82 per hour
  • Discrimination, exploitation and verbal and physical abuse are common

There is a concentration of migrant workers in the agri-food sector (meat, poultry, pig, mushroom farming, fishing), in hotels and restaurants, in cleaning and care. Their work is seldom recognised. Across these industries pay is low and conditions far from ideal; on top of this, migrant workers face discrimination in accessing employment and discrimination in the workplace. The vulnerabilities and precariousness associated with immigration status merit special mention, as immigration status impacts on progression and participation and requires a specific focus when developing strategies to ensure equal outcomes for migrants in the labour market.

An additional group of invisible workers meeting the needs of the labour market in Ireland are undocumented workers who are vulnerable to exploitation. These workers provide essential work across the country, with some living here as long at 19 years. Research carried out by MRCI found that the overwhelming majority (89%) are in employment, typically (though not always) in sectors where low-paid work is prevalent. The top three sectors of employment are Restaurant & Catering (32%), Domestic Work (29%), and Cleaning and Maintenance (13%). Other sectors include retail, hotel, medical, healthcare and agriculture (MRCI, 2016).

As part of a Just Transition framework, which is yet to be fully articulated, a response to undocumented migrants is essential. This framework should also have a significant focus on addressing low pay and providing a focus on secure employment. While there have been positive movements upwards in the rate of the minimum wage, this does not go far enough. Adopting the living wage as a minimum standard as part of a Just Transition framework is essential.

A growing concern, not mentioned in the strategy, is Ireland’s ageing population. Care at home is more cost effective and preferable for many people looking to age with dignity. Much home care work is carried out by migrant workers. However, this is an unregulated sector where enforcement of rights and standards is scattergun at best (MRCI, 2015a). Investment in alternative models for the delivery of care, which provide quality jobs and quality care and recognises the role of migrants in this work must form part of cross-departmental strategies into the future.

There also needs to be an acknowledgement that both labour and skills shortages will persist into the future. As populations age, we will need more not less migration to Ireland. Currently, our immigration system is very restrictive and work permits continue to contribute to the vulnerabilities of workers. Sectoral permits have not been adopted and mobility – a central tenant of decent work – remain elusive for many migrant workers.

The strategy articulates the need to attract new talent, however, it is not enough to just attract new talent, there is a need to enshrine migrants’ rights and entitlements into law. The right to family reunification and long term residency, to name just two are fundamental (MRCI, 2015b).

A cornerstone in protecting migrant workers is ensuring worker representation and collective bargaining. Ireland’s voluntarist system of collective bargaining needs to be strengthened and put on a stronger legislative footing. Migrant workers are more protected in this type of system, as is evident in the Swedish model.

It is worrying that flexible working solutions are so embedded in the strategy. Flexible arrangements should benefit both employer and employee, but in practice, flexibility is often at the expense of workers’ security and rights. Flexibility without security reinforces power imbalances between employer and employee and leaves workers vulnerable to abuse. Workers in low wage working environments and migrant workers in general tend to have less control and autonomy over their work, in part due to discrimination and work permit restrictions. Having control and certainty over hours and remuneration is central to building strong and resilient communities and a thriving society. While no job is for life, all jobs should build a worker’s skills and experience for the future of work. Investing in training and upskilling which actively includes migrant workers is key to promoting progression and addressing the stratification of the labour market.

In 2018, one in ten workers who accessed MRCI services reported experiencing exploitation. Tackling exploitation and non-compliance is in everybody’s interest. This is particularly relevant in creating a level playing field for new and emerging SMEs and in upholding a decent work agenda to protect workers’ rights. Protecting migrant workers holds the line for all workers. If we are to build a decent work economy, one not dependent on exploitation and inequality, we must address these issues head-on in all our strategies for the future.

Therefore, some key components needed for future jobs strategies to uphold a decent work agenda are as follows: moving towards the Living Wage; introducing a scheme for undocumented workers, tackling non-compliance; carrying out research into the stratification of the labour market; developing a strategy for home care that recognises the contribution of migrants; introducing sectoral work permits; providing in work training targeted at migrants in low waged work; and enshrining the rights of migrants in legislation.