Getting Right to Work (2021)

This report contributes to the realisation of the right to decent work for international protection applicants in Ireland. It does so by documenting the barriers they face to obtaining employment and decent work, examining the effectiveness of employment support programmes, and identifying measures to be taken to ensure access to decent work for this target group.

Executive Summary

Decent work is a multidimensional concept that is concerned with the availability of employment in conditions of freedom, equity, security, and human dignity. It was introduced by the International Labour Organisation in 1999 and involves opportunities for work that is productive and delivers a fair income; provides security in the workplace and social protection for families; offers increased prospects for personal development and social integration; affords freedom for people to express their concerns; provides people with the opportunity to organize and participate in the decisions that affect their lives; and ensures equality of opportunity and treatment for all women and men. 

Employment provides opportunities for social relations and community participation, while unemployment contributes to social exclusion and loss of self-confidence and poor health. Furthermore, employment is considered to be the single most important indicator of integration as it provides a source of income and confers social standing with respect to the hostcountry population. 

The goal of decent work is not just the creation of jobs and employment, but the creation of jobs of acceptable quality. 

Review of Existing Practice and Experience 

Research over the last decade has shown that migrants’ experiences in the labour market is one of underemployment. Lack of recognition of qualifications and experience; poor pay rates, as well as terms and conditions; lack of promotional opportunities; lack of social capital; and discrimination all hinder access to work and/ or progression. Several key problems have been identified. These include the intertwinement of employment and immigration enforcement; workers’ lack of awareness of employment rights; the ineffectiveness of labour inspections; the uncertain impact of undocumented status on employment rights; and difficulties with enforcing employment awards. And across the continuum of exploitation from relatively minor employment violations to forced labour and trafficking, vulnerability is at least partly created by a person’s irregular or precarious status. International protection applicants’ experiences are broadly similar. They must apply to the Immigration Service Delivery unit of the Department of Justice for permission to work, and if successful they are granted a permit in the form of a letter for a fixed period. This was extended from six to 12 months at the start of 2021. They also face other significant administrative barriers when it comes to getting work. These include difficulty opening bank accounts, and not being allowed to apply for driving licenses.

This report highlights how the range of employment schemes and supports operated by the Department of Social Protection to assist long-term unemployed people to return to work do not include the Daily Expenses Allowance paid to protection applicants living in Direct Provision. It also outlines the crucial role played by refugee/migrant support and other non-governmental organisations in facilitating successful labour market access for refugees and protection applicants. It provides a nonexhaustive list of NGO-run employment support programmes targeted at assisting refugees and protection applicants in Ireland. One of the main problems with these is the temporary and short term nature of the funding streams. This, combined with the relatively few evaluations of the services (linked to the nature of the funding provided) means there has been little opportunity to learn from and build on the work done to date in this area. 

Another key aspect of supporting protection applicants to access employment is the need for appropriate training for support workers and service providers. Understanding how trauma and displacement affects those who use the services is vital, as is knowing the appropriate responses. Working in a trauma-informed way is therefore vital for anyone delivering supports and services for protection applicants, as is an understanding of cultural, linguistic and other areas of diversity. 

From a review of policy, practice and experiences across Europe, a number of key aspects emerge as being of particular importance for the labour market integration of refugees and protection applicants. These are language; recognition of skills and qualifications; the coordination of services to address other needs that are crucial for employment, including health care and housing; social networks; and employer engagement.

A number of action areas were identified by the OECD and UNHCR as key to facilitating the employment of refugees. Their proposed 2018 action plan recommends enhanced cooperation between employers, employment services and immigration authorities. They highlight the need for public authorities and employment services to provide up-to-date, comprehensive information to employers who want to hire protection applicants and refugees; to educate employment service staff; to provide support for employers around skills assessment; and to raise awareness about discrimination, xenophobia and stereotyping through awareness raising campaigns and training. They note that civil society organisations have a role to play by establishing information services for refugees and employers in relation to work rights and by providing training and other services that prepare refugees for entry into the workplace. 

Research Findings 

This study adopted a mixed method approach to examining the effectiveness of employment support programmes for protection applicants and refugees in Ireland. Drawing on the findings from the review of existing literature and good practice, their experiences were captured through focus group discussions and an online survey. These findings were supplemented by interviews with labour market access support services and NGOs running employment support services or programmes. The research also drew on the experiences and evidence base built up by Doras through its direct support work. 

The findings indicate that employment choices are disproportionately restricted for protection applicants and refugees. They routinely have difficulty finding employment in sectors of their choice and tend towards a small number of employment sectors which experience has shown they are more likely to get work in. These include childcare, healthcare and security work. The importance of employment for wellbeing, personal development and integration into society was highlighted with both education and employment seen as beneficial, not least because they afford people the opportunity to engage with other people in the community. Findings are categorised as follows: 

  1. Barriers to Employment and Decent Work A range of inter-related barriers to obtaining meaningful or preferred work were articulated. These included a lack of networks and knowledge of how to navigate the system or find work; discrimination; social or economic disadvantage (as a result of living in Direct Provision); lack of access to childcare (particularly for women); poor recognition of qualifications and experience; lack of references; work permit restrictions; other administrative barriers (including bank accounts and driving licenses); and language. These are compounded by other factors including the length of time spent in the asylum process, leading to loss of knowledge currency and confidence, coping with displacement and trauma, and age. 
  2. Employer Attitudes and Awareness Here the need for enterprises and organisations to take a planned and systematic approach to equality and human rights are highlighted. Employers’ legal obligations, and the growing recognition that promoting and maintaining diversity in the workplace is beneficial from a business perspective also emerged as important findings.
  3. Knowing Your Rights Rights holders may not always be aware of or may be reluctant to assert their rights when looking for work. Out of necessity they are often focused on finding any employment rather than decent employment opportunities. As a result of the barriers faced when trying to get work, they are not focused on the standards of the employment, rather their main goal is often to source an income regardless of employment standards. 
  4. Employment Support Services While general employment support programmes can help to address some of the barriers that rights holders face when trying to access employment, they are generally not equipped to address the particular barriers faced by protection applicants. The need for additional, dedicated support services is essential, starting with the understanding that people seeking  employment for the first time in Ireland may have gone through trauma and displacement,  or lack confidence as a result of their many years in Direct Provision without a right to work.
  5. Pathways to Employment Most of the research survey respondents were not working in their preferred employment or in roles commensurate with their skills or qualifications. Taking whatever work is available is seen as a route to building social networks, as well as securing essential income. It is also a consequence of the fatigue and resignation that comes from spending years in Direct Provision. 


The following high-level recommendations are proposed in relation to the right to decent work for protection applicants in Ireland. They are underpinned by two key principles: 

(1) equality of access to services for protection applicants and refugees; and 

(2) recognition of their unique needs and vulnerabilities, collectively and individually, while appreciating the diversity and the richness of talent and expertise within the refugee population. 


A. Government, Public Authorities and Services 

1. Remove the administrative and legislative barriers that restrict international protection applicant’s real and effective access to work. 

2. Provide early access to dedicated and targeted employment supports and training for international application applicants. 

3. Ensure equal access to mainstream employment supports, training and further education for all protection applicants and refugees. 

4. Put adequate measures in place to ensure protection applicants and refugees are not forced into work that is precarious or does not respect their fundamental rights or their rights as workers. 

B. Employers and Employer Associations 

5. Employers should ensure equal opportunities are provided for protection applicants and refugees seeking employment. 

6. Implement measures to eliminate discrimination, exploitation and harassment from workplaces. 

7. Employer associations should monitor and assess the performance of employers. 

C. Non-Governmental Organisations / Civil Society 

8. Provide services aimed at achieving suitable and sustainable employment for protection applicants and refugees. 

Each of these recommendations are outlined in greater detail in the final section of the report. 

A February 2021 government commitment to put employment supports at the core of a new model to replace Direct Provision, alongside health, housing and education supports, is encouraging. According to the White Paper to end Direct Provision that was introduced by the Department of Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, the new model will come into effect on a phased basis between February 2021 and December 2024. The government has said that under the new model, protection applicants will be entitled to access employment activation supports and to link with employer networks after an initial four month period in a Reception and Integration Centre. It also promises to provide early intensive orientation and English language programmes, as well as employment supports, and to address some of the other administrative and legislative barriers to employment that currently exist. 

As the evidence in this report shows, these are urgently needed.