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Maeve Higgins: The State cannot say it values migrant workers while it pushes them out the door

Maeve Higgins says Ireland’s home care assistants and other migrant workers perform a vital service and should be given proper immigration status.

Maeve Higgins

“IT MUST BE windproof, waterproof, rainproof, all of that!”

BRUNO RAMOS IS laughing as he describes what he would wear on his cycle from house to house during his work as a home care assistant in the inclement Irish weather, very different from the sunshine he grew up with in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Home care assistants, a small but mighty army looking after older people or those who are ill among us day after day, include thousands of migrants. I’m drawn to migrant stories, having moved to the US from Ireland eight years ago.

During the pandemic, both in Ireland and the US, citizens of both countries have realised just how essential migrants are. In the case of home care assistants, their duties are manifold and quite literally vital, as Bruno explains:

We can be doing 30 minutes, just dropping in and reminding them to take their medication, or staying for longer and helping them eat and bathe or get into bed.

Today, Bruno works at a care home in south Dublin, tending to long- and short-term residents, providing care for respite, convalescence, dementia care, acquired brain injury, rehabilitation and palliative care patients. He loves his job, and he is much needed. Despite that, come April, the Irish State will not allow him to continue working. 

Immigration

The home care assistant profession is ineligible for employment permits for workers from outside the European Economic Area. Bruno, and hundreds of migrant healthcare workers like him, are on student visas.

He worked as an Intensive Care Unit nurse in Brazil for 18 years before moving to Ireland two years ago, to learn English in the hope of qualifying for the same job here.

His student visa runs out in April and he cannot renew it until September, leaving him stuck and unable to plead his case with the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service because as he tells me (and a number of other migrant healthcare workers confirm): “It is impossible to reach them, and to explain.”

TheJournal.ie was able to reach the service at the Department of Justice, and while they do not comment on individual cases, they made the following statement:

Since March 2020, the Minister has extended immigration permissions on six occasions, and the current extension runs until 20 April 2021. These extensions also apply to those in the State on student permissions. The conditions attaching to student permissions are kept under ongoing review. Any further extension of permission will be considered in light of NPHET and Government advice in relation to restrictions due to the pandemic.

That’s not much help to workers like Bruno, left out in the cold despite the government’s stated appreciation of their work:

The Department acknowledges the difficulties that the Covid-19 pandemic has had on all immigrants including our international student population. Through their participation in part-time and casual employment in many essential services they have made a valuable contribution during extremely difficult times.

It seems self-destructive of the State to acknowledge the value of certain migrants on the one hand, while pushing them out the door with the other, particularly at a time when Ireland needs more carers.

Valuing their work

An investigation by Noteworthy reported that in a submission to the Government in November of 2019 on employment permits, Home and Community Care Ireland (HCCI) estimated “that the home care sector would require an additional 6,000 healthcare assistants (HCAs) among the HSE and HCCI members in 2020 alone”.

It called on HCAs to be placed on the Critical Skills List and to be removed from the Ineligible Occupations List.

The demand for home help care and for residential and intermediate care places in nursing homes and other settings is projected to increase by up to 54% by 2030, according to The Institute for Economic and Social Research (ESRI). But of course, there is no need to look to the future when we are already in an emergency.

In the US, we are inundated daily with stories of frontline migrant workers risking their safety in these awful pandemic days. In Ireland, the story is not told as often, but perhaps it should be.

I spoke to Jandaia Zandonella, a home care assistant originally from São Paulo. She is awaiting her vaccination and in the meantime, she tells me, “I am scared every day.” The risks are all too real. Ireland depends on so many foreign workers to keep the health system going, particularly now.

Last Christmas Eve, a week after being diagnosed with Covid-19, Mariter Terugo died in St Vincents Hospital, the same Dublin hospital she worked in as a healthcare assistant. Mariter had moved to Ireland from The Philippines in 2000. She was described as “A kind-hearted, hard-working woman, she became a fixture on St Andrew’s ward, loved by her colleagues, cherished by the patients she cared for.”

When Irish people clapped, we were clapping for people like her, and Jandaia and Bruno – our ‘health care heroes’.

I’m struck by how much they give to the community here in Ireland, and how little they ask for in return. Workers like Bruno exist here in a type of limbo. All he seeks is a work permit that allows him and other such workers a fair shot. In the US, the question of immigrants’ rights often gets politicised and ugly. There is no need for that to happen in Ireland.

Surely the country is indebted to every healthcare worker for what they’ve risked and who they’ve saved this past terrible year. It is unfortunate but not unfixable that we value those born here more than those born elsewhere.

I put it to Bruno, considering the predicament the Irish State has left him in, would he leave and pursue his ambition to become an ICU nurse in another country, one that would welcome him with open arms instead of obstacles? He would not.

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The problem, he tells me, is he’s gotten attached. Ireland feels like home and his patients feel like family. “Actually I wouldn’t like to go to Canada, Australia, New Zealand or any other place where it is easy to get a work visa, I would like to stay here. In Brazil we have an expression: in a winning team, you don’t change the players.”

Maeve Higgins is a writer and comedian and co-host of the climate justice podcast Mothers Of Invention with Mary Robinson.

***

Further information via Department of Justice – non-EEA nationals who are employed or appropriately qualified as nurses or doctors in their country of origin prior to moving to Ireland may be eligible to apply for the Atypical Working Scheme (AWS) before they enter the State. The AWS applies to non-EEA Nationals who in certain circumstances are required by an organisation or company based in the State to undertake work in specific areas, including healthcare. More information about AWS is available on www.inis.gov.ie.

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