Since August 2018, Bulelani Mfaco has worked for one hour. He taught a guest lecture for €100.
It’s not that Mfaco, an asylum seeker, hadn’t tried to find jobs after he got a letter of permission from the government, allowing him to access work.
“The conversation collapses immediately when you get to the [working] permission. Employers are looking for an EU passport or a GNIB card,” he says.
(Garda National Immigration Bureau cards were replaced in 2017 by Irish Residence Permit cards, but many people still call them GNIB cards.)
In May 2017, the Supreme Court found that a blanket ban on accessing work was unconstitutional. In July 2018, the government allowed asylum seekers to apply for letters of permission to work.
But some people living in the system of government centres for asylum seekers, commonly known as “direct provision”, say the temporary letters of permission don’t allow for meaningful employment.
Mfaco says he had spent nine months applying for jobs from the “direct provision” centre where he lives in Co. Clare before finding that one hour of work.
He’s signed up to email alerts on job sites and lost count of applications he’s made. Hundreds, he reckons.
But whenever he gets a possible employer on the phone, the conversation usually ended as soon as he says he’s an asylum seeker with the right to work for only six months at a time.
Mfaco was a civil servant in South Africa, he says. But he’slegally forbidden from being one in Ireland.
He’s tried Google, Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft. After all, they might need people with multiple languages and international experience, he said. “But that didn’t work. I eventually gave up and applied to study.”
A Dublin recruiter told him they couldn’t take his CV because employees need an 11-month visa, he said.
They said to apply when he gets a Stamp 4, he says. A Stamp 4 gives someone permission to work in Ireland without a work permit.
“A lot of people don’t understand how the letters work,” says Mfaco. (Employers who don’t understand the finer points of the Irish immigration system is a problem others from outside the European Union have come up against, too.)
“If a person from an EU country applies for a job, they just have to show their passport. If they’re from a non-EU country, they show their GNIB card or Irish residency card,” says Mfaco.
Lesley Mkoko lives in a centre in Co. Waterford.
He used to work as an engineer, he says. He searched for a stable job, and has applied, too, for jobs at Facebook.
In December, he worked for two weeks as a kitchen porter. It was “out of desperation”, he says. That was the first and only time he found work.
“When you get to the interview, the most embarrassing thing you do is produce this paper, which the employers are surprised at,” says Mkoko, pointing to his letter.
He’s been told by employers, he says, that they’re happy with him – but not with the short-term status.
Queuing to collect his weekly allowance from the government of €38.80 – raised from €21.60 in March – at the post office is “humiliating”, says Mfaco.
“Then more humiliation when I’m standing in a supermarket and counting coins to see if I have enough to get what I want and need,” he says.
“And again I’ll be humiliated when I get back to the direct provision centre and queue for dinner that I have no say in but have to eat it even if I don’t like it or I’ll starve,” he says.
Without a job, he has no social life. “Even going out for a drink is a nightmare because I have to think about taxi fare and money to buy drinks,” he says.
Right to Work
Under regulations brought in last July, people who’ve come to Ireland, told the government here that they’re fleeing persecution back home, and applied for asylum, can apply for this permission to work while they wait, which has to be renewed every six months.
But there are restrictions. To be eligible, a person must have waited at least nine months for a first-instance decision on their asylum application.
If someone was denied asylum faster than that in the first round, yet waited years for a ruling on their appeal, they still cannot work. Asylum seekers can wait up to two years after their first interview before receiving a decision.
This is coupled in with the fact that they can wait an average of 18 to 20 months before they have their first assessment interview with the Department of Justice and Equality.
As of May 2019, there were more than 6,000 people living in direct provision centres in Ireland. More than 4,200 were aged 18 to 65.
A spokesperson for the Department of Justice said that more than 2,700 asylum seekers had been granted permission to work, and more than 1,200 were confirmed in employment or self-employment.
“The system is broken,” says Mkoko. It doesn’t make sense that a person who got a relatively quick first decision, but has waited years on an appeal, can’t work but a person who’s been in the country a much shorter time but hasn’t had that first decision can, he says.
“Five years, six years, seven years they’re waiting. They cannot get [permission to work],” he says.
However, for Mkoko, the main problem is that access to the labour market is temporary. He used to work in the petroleum industry. But he can’t find meaningful work here, he says.
“No sane employer would consider a [permanent] employee for six months,” he says. “They have to get through training, induction. You want to put those costs into a person for another three months. It’s not worth the investment.”
Most employers are reluctant to hire, even though the six months’ permission is renewable, says Mfaco.
The Department of Justice says that since asylum seekers only have temporary permission to be in Ireland, it’s “practical” to make their permission to work temporary too.
“Given that this permission can only be temporary, pending a decision on their application, it would not be possible or practical to grant permission to the labour market which was not similarly temporary,” a spokesperson said.
Employers looking at hiring a person seeking asylum would also learn that it would involve extra paperwork. They’d have to submit reports to the Department of Justice, including declaration forms within 21 days of the job starting, and 21 days after it ends.
Bold text on the work permit warns potential employers that, if they don’t submit these forms, they face a fine or jail time of up to 12 months. “That is a deterrent to any employer,” says Mfaco.
The Department of Justice and Equality denies that they’ve encountered an unwillingness to hire asylum seekers.
“Based on the department’s engagement with employers, there does not appear to be any lack of understanding amongst employers that protection applicants can now work in Ireland,” said a spokesperson.
Living in Waterford and being forbidden from having a driver’s licence is another barrier, Mkoko says. Even if he were to get a job, commuting would be tough.
Hospitality and Healthcare
Some people awaiting decisions on their asylum applications do work, says Mfaco. But mostly in the hospitality industry, he says.
That tallies with what Shane McLave, director of Excel Recruitment, an agency for retail and hospitality workers on Capel Street, says.
Still, fewer than 25 of the 1,000 agency staff that seek casual and full-time work with Excel are asylum seekers, McLave says.
The majority of these work in hospitality or healthcare, and up to 40 hours a week, he says.
“There’s the temporary work where a hospital or nursing home will ask for care assistants and we send them out the following day or the following week and there’s no interview process,” he says.
The letters of permission haven’t posed a major problem for those who do temporary work, he says.
In his experience, McLave says they have been renewed quickly enough. But, again, this depends on whether someone has gotten their first-round decision on whether they’ll be granted asylum in Ireland.
“The rosters are done on a week-by-week basis. Maybe a week before their six months is due to expire, they usually get issued with a new card,” says McLave.
However, he says employers who aren’t as educated about the letters might be reluctant to hire asylum seekers, even on a temporary basis.
The Department of Justice and Equality says its Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service (INIS) ran an information campaign last June on asylum seekers’ right to access the labour market.
“INIS officials held an Information Seminar, which was attended by employers, trade unions, NGOs and other stakeholders,” a department spokesperson said
“A nationwide tour of Direct Provision accommodation centres was also undertaken to provide information to residents between February and July of 2018,” they said.
The spokesperson added that employers could send queries online to the Labour Market Access Unit on the INIS website.
For permanent, full-time jobs, the permission letters are definitely a problem, McLave says.
A few clients have asked if they can offer a permanent full-time contract to somebody, he says. “At that stage and we say, ‘Look, unfortunately, their [permit] at this stage won’t allow it.’”
“Nothing’s guaranteed” when it comes to a person’s asylum claim, says McLave.
McLave says that Excel is keen to take on asylum seekers. But he is aware that not everyone wants to work in these more junior roles, given their past qualifications, he says.
“People who might be skilled as an engineer, they might come here and end up working as a kitchen porter,” he says.
Mkoko, once an engineer, wants more than an entry-level job. “This is a non-starter,” he says.
Mkoko wants to see an unconditional work permit for people seeking asylum, so that employers can take them on for as long as they want.
It should look like a GNIB card, he says. Or at least be recognisable.
The Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland (MASI), which Mfaco is involved with, wants the right to work to be automatically given to people as soon as the asylum process begins.
The permits should last 12 months, and be renewable until the person is granted residency or leaves the state, MASI said in a submission to the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality in May.
There shouldn’t be a nine-month wait before they can apply either, says MASI. People lose skills in that time.
MASI also says that the current letter of permission should be replaced with a temporary Irish Residence Permit (IRP) card indicating that a person has permission to work full-time.
This would make the document instantly recognisable to potential employers and would allow international protection applicants to prove residency so they could get a driving licence and open a bank account, MASI says.
Mkoko received a Sanctuary Scholarship last year to study sociology and social policy in University College Dublin, commuting three hours to and from Waterford.
“If I wasn’t in college, I would be in a psychiatric centre somewhere. The mental-health issues within the centres are terrible,” he says. “People are insane. People are mad.”
They’re just waiting for the post, for word on their decision, he says. “They can’t do anything.”