“Migrant Rights, Employment, and Supports”

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Accessing employment remains as big a challenge as ever for members of minority communities in Donegal a Letterkenny conference on “Migrant Rights, Employment, and Supports” heard last week.

Evidence cited by participants included the persistent lack of African employees in customer service positions at a number of large department stores and retailers in the county, as well as difficulties that highly qualified applicants from a range of minority communities are having getting hired even for positions that they are over-qualified for.

“When you’re not able to get a job and you’re on social welfare, they’re giving you so much hassle, saying you don’t want to work,” said Georgina Aduboahene of Donegal Intercultural Platform, which organised the conference in association with Donegal Local Development Company (DLDC). “Even though you’re sending out CVs and applications every week, you’re not getting anything back. So more support in getting a job is needed, because whether we’re African, Polish, Indian, or Chinese, we all want to work.”

“Despite having the skills and being over-qualified for the jobs, there are still barriers to accessing available job opportunities,” moderator Stephen Barrett of DLDC told the 40 conference participants from a number of different ethnic communities in Donegal. “So the question is really: What can we do to better educate employers, to better engage with employers, and to increase access to employment opportunities?”

Featured conference speaker Gráinne O’Toole of the Migrant Rights Centre (MRC) in Dublin said Centre research indicates that even when minority community members are hired, they are often unable to progress beyond minimum wage positions.

She added that exploitation is widespread in the sectors most commonly open to migrants in Ireland, including the fisheries, farm work, domestic work, and, increasingly, home care for elders. A 2015 survey by the Centre of 104 migrants working in Ireland found that 44 per cent were being paid less than the minimum wage, 61 per cent were required to work extra hours without pay, and 82 per cent were not compensated for working on Sundays.

“Even though we have good employment laws in Ireland and all of the standards are there, they’re being abused left, right, and, centre,” Ms. O’Toole said. Recent MRC efforts to challenge these and other issues affecting workers, however, have been rebuffed with stated concerns about the uncertainties created by Brexit.

“We’ve been making an economic case to the government as to what Ireland would gain financially from regularising people” who are currently undocumented but working and paying taxes, Ms. O’Toole said. “But now, with Brexit, we’re told, ‘Oh, we start bringing in programmes like that and everyone will come here,’ which wouldn’t be the case, as you’d have to have been here for a while, have roots here and so on to qualify.”

Other concerns raised by conference participants included problems that the Habitual Residence Clause is creating for some people to qualify for medical cards and other benefits despite the fact that they have been living legally in Ireland for years. Participants also said they were having trouble accessing the Irish education system, as enrolment in adult education is often restricted to people receiving unemployment benefits and higher education fees for foreign students are so high. Problems both in finding accommodation and in getting deposits back from landlords were also reported by participants.

“Key issues being brought to our attention as a group by black and ethnic minorities are that they are experiencing exclusion, discrimination, isolation, and racism in Donegal,” said Paul Kernan, Co-Chair of Donegal Intercultural Platform, which advocates on behalf of minority communities in the county. Despite the seriousness of these issues, he added, no dedicated positions have been created for ethnic minority community representation on new local government bodies such as the Public Participation Network. “It’s really sad that the new civic mechanisms that the Council are supporting do not have any direct ethnic minority representation,” he said. “It’s an issue that we’re taking up with those bodies.”

Donegal Intercultural Platform runs English conversation classes in Letterkenny and Falcarragh plus a Friday drop-in service at the Donegal Travellers Project office on the Port Road in Letterkenny. The group can be contacted on (086) 123 3530 or (086) 084 1433.