MRCI’s campaign for the right to change employer is a good example of collective action for change: supporting a collective to respond to individual problems facing work permit holders, building power for change through power sharing with those affected, and building solidarity with allies and supporters. Ireland’s Work Permit system effectively binds workers to their employers. By offering migrant workers no way to freely change jobs, the system renders them completely dependent on their employer for their legal status. This is a perfect environment for the exploitation of workers by unscrupulous employers, and MRCI has exposed several shocking cases where migrant workers were treated as little more than indentured servants. This issue is one which affects many of our members, from waitresses and agricultural workers to nannies and carers. For many years, we raised our concerns about the Work Permit system with government officials and this led to some welcome administrative changes. We also lodged hundreds of formal cases under Irish labour and employment rights law for violation of permit workers’ rights.
Our community work ethos compels us to seek systematic structural reforms for the benefit of the roughly 25,000 work permit holders in Ireland, and not just solutions to individual problems. So we brought together a working group of activists and migrant worker leaders who agreed to make this issue our headline campaign for 2010. The campaign kicked off with the publication of research we commissioned which showed a significant level of public support for our proposal to allow workers to freely change employers within their job category. This has been a bold and dynamic campaign involving seasoned activists from other campaign core groups and action groups. Our activists have met ministers, addressed parliamentary committees and, along with trade union allies, collected thousands of signatures of support from people in the home constituencies of the relevant ministers. They have received the endorsement from employer and trade union bodies for the campaign. Our members have explained the injustices of the current system in countless media interviews, held noisy demonstrations outside government offices and written thousands of letters to ministers and other parliamentarians. They have done significant outreach work around the country to build widespread support for the campaign and to identify regional migrant leaders. While a change of government in early 2011 brought about a forced hiatus in this campaign, we are confident that in the near future we will bring home the changes our members seek.