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Dublin: 9 °C Thursday 17 October, 2019
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'Frustrating' regulations affecting ethnic restaurants as work permit crackdown continues

A backlog in applications also means the current processing time for standard work permit applications is 13 weeks.

Image: Shutterstock

RESTAURANT OWNERS HAVE complained that “frustrating” regulations and a work permit backlog are disproportionately affecting ethnic businesses.

In recent weeks there have been a number of cases taken against food businesses by the Workplace Relations Commission in relation to employment permits. 

Staff at one Asian cuisine restaurant in Dublin fled the premises when the WRC inspector visited to check work permits last year. 

The judge in this case said he accepted the specialist nature of this type of cooking, but added that workers without permits were vulnerable.

The restaurant was spared a conviction and asked to make a €500 donation to a charity. 

Another Dublin business, a Chinese takeaway, was also asked to make a donation to avoid a hefty fine after the WRC found two of its 10 employees did not have permits entitling them to work. 

And a Chinese restaurant in Kildare last Friday was ordered to pay €1,100 for failing to keep employee records and having a non-EU staff member without a work permit. 

Last year there were 36 employment permit convictions and in 2017 there were 46, many of which involved ethnic restaurants. 

The Restaurant Association (RAI) this week highlighted the current 13-week processing time for standard work permit applications as the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation works through a backlog. 

CEO of the Association, Adrian Cummins told TheJournal.ie that while the businesses should operate within the law, new government regulations and this lengthy processing time was making it difficult for small businesses – particularly ethnic restaurants – to stay open. 

Changes to the regulations mean that no more than two general employment permits for chefs can be in force at the same time at one restaurant. Cummins said due to the specialist skills required for ethnic cuisine, these restaurants are finding this rule particularly restrictive. 

He also said the changes, approved last year by Minister Heather Humphreys, were introduced “without consultation with the industry”.

“Now we have to lobby again to get this changed back. The membership feel like they are bottom of the ladder, insignificant,” he said. It’s extremely frustrating.”

“The department does everything in its power to frustrate business owners in getting permits. It’s unacceptable in 2019 when we have a skills shortage across every sector in this economy.

We need to listen to businesses’ needs and make changes immediately, we need to get a handle on why in Ireland it takes 13 weeks when in New Zealand you can get a work permit in 9 days.

Low wage sector

Although the WRC said it has no specific campaign in relation to employment permits, the commission told TheJournal.ie that it does monitor ethnic food restaurants (along with others) as they often employ non-EU workers and “such restaurants also tend to be a low wage sector”.

“In general, fast food premises tend to have a quicker turnover of staff and, as such, the incidences of breaches may be more extant in this sector given the precarious nature of the work and the ratio of staff employed on a full and part-time basis.”

The WRC said its role, as well as ensuring compliance by employers with legislation, is to protect the rights of workers.

“Workers who work without employment permits or other form of permission to work here may be undocumented and lack an understanding of their basic employment rights and can be more vulnerable in terms of receiving less than the legal minimum wage, not paid for all hours worked, and not in receipt of statutory rest breaks, annual leave or public holidays,” the commission said. 

In addition, WRC inspectors are trained to check for signs of human trafficking for labour exploitation and to immediately inform the Human Trafficking Investigation and Co-ordination Unit, who can give support and assistance if they have any concerns in this regard.

The WRC also said work permit breaches can put law-abiding employers at a competitive disadvantage and this work “ensures a level playing field”.

‘Tell that to small businesses’

The Department of Business, Enterprise and Jobs acknowledged the lengthy processing time, explaining that it has “experienced a high volume” of permit applications.

At the end of June 2019 there was an 11% increase in the number of applications received (9,111 applications received) over the same period in 2018.

There has been a 36% increase in the number of applications processed (9,140 applications processed) compared to the same period last year, and last month was the busiest month for processing applications in more than ten years.

The department said it is working to reduce the current waiting times and pointed out that the processing time for ‘trusted partners’ who account for 71% of permits issued, is four weeks.

Cummins said the government should “tell that to the small business that has to close on Monday and Tuesday because they don’t have enough staff to operate the restaurant”.

He said many of these ‘trusted partners’ are larger businesses with dedicated human resource departments that regularly apply for permits.

The department said it has introduced a number of operational changes, implemented ICT solutions and assigned additional staffing resources to address the backlog. A review of the permits section will also commence shortly.

It advised applicants for employment permits to apply 12 weeks before the expected start date.

The department said it has met representatives of the sector on a number of occasions and has developed a sector-specific employment permit ‘checklist for chefs’ to assist employers with the application process. 

“In order to make changes to the occupation lists, there would need to be a clear demonstration that recruitment difficulties are not [related] to factors such as salary and/or employment conditions,” it added.

“The views of the lead policy government department for the sector, in this case, the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport are an important part of the decision-making process. The sector have been advised that an evidence-based case for making changes to the system will be considered as part of the regular reviews of the occupation lists.”

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