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No Covid Supports for Workers in Direct Provision

Cathie Shiels looks at the experience of those working on the frontlines and living in Direct Provision during Covid-19 and what trade unions can do to help.

“Breakfast is served at 8am, but that’s too late for me, as I’m already on my way to work”, says Charity, a 29 year old frontline worker and qualified social worker, living in Direct Provision. Stuck in the system for almost 3 years, Charity is one of many workers living in Direct Provision and working on the frontline of the pandemic.

As a frontline care worker, most of the people Charity works with are elderly and have dementia. “These people there are like my family’’, she says. “The residents are genuinely laughing with me, I feel so comfortable. The residents are the reason why I go to work.” 

When Covid hit, Charity was moved out of her Direct Provision Centre and into a nearby hotel, to limit the dangers of carrying the virus from work. Facilities in the hotel are unsuitable for her, however, and often she has to return to the centre to wash her uniforms for health and safety reasons as it is no longer practical to do so in the increasingly busy hotel. 

Charity, and many other workers like her, are left in a state of uncertainty and anxiety, “I don’t know how long this will last, I’m very confused about what will happen from week to week. Will we be sent back to live with people in Direct Provision centres?”

None of Charity’s colleagues know that she’s in Direct Provision, “That’s private, only my manager knows. I avoid answering those questions, or tell people that I’m here on a Stamp 4. I’d rather be in work, when I’m in work I’m just happy, laughing – listening to the stories the residents tell me, it just makes me feel at home.” 

In 2018, the Irish Government opted into the EU Reception Conditions Directive which allowed for a limited right to work for those seeking asylum in the Republic of Ireland. At the time, the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland (MASI) made clear that this was a very qualified right: it excluded anyone who hadn’t been in the country for more than nine months, and anyone who had been refused asylum in their first application (the majority of applicants in Ireland are refused asylum on their first application). 

Those most affected by the exclusion were those who had already spent a long time trapped in Direct Provision. Despite these, and other, barriers, some asylum seekers have been able to join the Irish labour market.

Essential workers

Yvonne O’Callaghan, an organiser with SIPTU, and chair of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) Global Solidarity Committee, spoke to LookLeft earlier this month and confirmed that one of the main sectors that people in Direct Provision have taken up employment in is the healthcare sector, “but mainly in private nursing homes rather than the public health sector – because of the restrictions on the right to work.”

As a result, these workers, predominantly women, have been working on the frontline of the private health sector during the pandemic, but often returning home to overcrowded facilities with no option for isolation. 

One worker spoke to O’Callaghan about going home from her job to then look after other people, because of her skill set. Charity’s manager in the care home helped her to apply for temporary accommodation, and has brought food to work for her knowing that mealtimes in the hotel often exclude her – but this is not the case for everyone.

The grim lens of Covid-19 has hammered home just how essential care work is. It is, however, a largely privatised sector, with the vast majority of care for our elderly (80%) being provided by private operators. 

During the early days of the pandemic, both industry and Government officials tried to pass the buck and lay the blame for deadly clusters in care homes at each other’s feet. There were different approaches to care workers in the media during this period. 

For example, while in print there were profile pieces focusing on frontline heroes who were in Direct Provision, listeners often encountered racism during radio discussion on the nursing home clusters. Instead of frontline heroes, it was “these people” coming from Direct Provision centres who “wouldn’t know anything as they’re not qualified” when, obviously, these workers have done their training and received their qualifications to be able to work. “There were definitely racist undertones in the media,” says O’Callaghan. “Actually, they weren’t even undertones – it was just blatant racism.”

No employment supports

Another issue that has arisen during the Covid crisis for workers living in Direct Provision is lack of access to either the Pandemic Unemployment Payment or the Temporary Wage Subsidy Scheme. According to the Department of Justice, this is because asylum seekers are already in receipt of a payment – the €38 weekly allowance paid to people living in Direct Provision – and already have accommodation of their basic needs met by the state.

Even frontline staff living in Direct Provision who continued to work but were then advised to self-isolate were not entitled to any of the payments. This is despite the extremely small numbers in Direct Provision who would have been eligible for either payment. 

The Irish Refugee Council (IRC) and others have lobbied to have people living in Direct Provision to be treated equally, particularly with regards to the Covid payments and to overcrowding and clusters in centres. ICTU also made the case for Covid payments for these workers, but the Government refused to budge. The issue was raised as part of SIPTU’s engagement with opposition parties over the Programme for Government, but no action has been taken.

O’Callaghan recognises that this is an area where the unions will have to continue to advocate for a group of workers who have been excluded, and are being denied the same treatment as many other frontline workers. 

While the above discussions were ongoing, MASI were making it clear that institutional living, be it in care homes or in Direct Provision centres, was dangerous in a pandemic: how can a person self-isolate in a shared room? 

While she has now moved to temporary hotel accommodation, when the Covid crisis began, Charity was acutely aware of the difficulties presented by living in such shared accommodation, ‘I was stressed in work, stressed with college and then going home and sharing a room with someone. Many people in the centre lost their jobs when the virus started, so they didn’t really have much to do and were spending time visiting each other in their rooms – so that was making me very anxious’.

When clusters began to appear in the Direct Provision centres, the IRC and MASI engaged with the government on the issues of overcrowding and requests for isolation. But, O’Callaghan says, “rather than provide a single room for people to isolate in, when isolation rooms were set up in Direct Provision centres they were just using the biggest room, for example a hall, and putting beds into it, harking back to 1950s-style TB wards. It’s unconscionable.”

Campaigners have highlighted that despite so much ‘noise’ about Direct Provision as a system, due consideration hasn’t been given to this vulnerable group of frontline workers. They have not been supported through access to the Covid payments or in terms of childcare. The problem of lack of childcare facilities for workers in Ireland is exacerbated for those living in Direct Provision, where workers lack a network of family support and experience the fear of coming home to overcrowded spaces, often without adequate washing facilities and with shared eating and bathroom facilities.

O’Callaghan notes that over the last few months that the vast majority of cases SIPTU has been receiving in terms of disciplinaries or problems, has been from “the migrant worker, it has been people of colour – they’ve faced a lot of adversity during this pandemic, they face adversities under normal circumstances but it has been compounded by the pandemic.”

Trade union membership

When asked about her impression of Irish trade unions, Charity said she’d heard about SIPTU when studying advanced social care in college but is not a member, “probably because I’m still in Direct Provision and I don’t know what’s going to happen – am I going to get my papers or am I going to be deported? It makes me feel unsure about whether to join any of those organisations.”

People in Direct Provision have the right to join a trade union under the Refugee Act, and O’Callaghan has represented SIPTU members in Direct Provision, but she explained that most people in Direct Provision have been excluded from the workplace for a long time, and have been forced to work within the informal economy. 

SIPTU will continue to campaign with MASI and others to end the system of Direct Provision. Separate to that campaigning work, O’Callaghan believes that it’s important to discover – through testimonials, and through working collectively with MASI, the IRC and others – what the experiences of people in Direct Provision have been in the workplace since the Right to Work was introduced. 

Like other migrant workers, they’re working on a permit type basis so they need to know what their basic workplace rights are. O’Callaghan said “now that people in Direct Provision have this right to work, we as unions need to outreach more and understand what we can offer people – the voice of workers in Direct Provision must be at the forefront.”

The pandemic, and the media focus on the clusters in centres, has exposed the reality of Direct Provision to many people who were previously unaware of it. Although there’s an explicit commitment to end the Direct Provision system in the programme for government, O’Callaghan believes the findings of the expert group on Direct Provision under Dr. Catherine Day will be important in the push to end the system: “It’s important that the report is acted upon, that it’s not just another McMahon Report that sits there. We as unions, along with others, will hold the government to account.”

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Cathie Shiels

Cathie Shiels