Non-EU students and undocumented migrants among those illegally employed

05 Jul 2017

Embargo: 00:01, Thursday 6 July 2017


The ESRI published new research today (6 July 2017) examining the illegal employment of non-EU nationals in Ireland. Illegal employment of non-EU nationals may involve legally resident migrants working outside their immigration permission, including students, or undocumented migrants, many of whom entered the country legally and overstayed. Illegal employment has a range of negative consequences, from non-payment of taxes to poor working conditions. Due to its hidden nature, workers’ fundamental rights are also often at risk, with non-EU workers being particularly vulnerable.

Non-EU nationals may not work in Ireland without an Employment Permit, unless their residence permit states otherwise. The residence permit of a non-EU student allows work up to a certain number of hours per week without the requirement to hold an Employment Permit.

The majority of undocumented migrants accessing the services of the NGO Migrant Rights Centre Ireland (MRCI) entered the State legally, often as students or tourists. The new ESRI research draws on an MRCI study, which found that almost all undocumented migrants surveyed were in employment, frequently in child and elderly care positions. Such workers can be vulnerable to exploitation, including by working long hours for very low pay. Labour inspectors may not visit private homes unannounced, which reduces their capacity to regulate this sector.

The student immigration regime in Ireland has become steadily more regulated since 2011 to prevent it being used to access the labour market without an Employment Permit. Non-EU students attending an eligible full-time academic programme may work 20 hours per week during term time and up to 40 hours per week during college holidays. Despite these changes research indicates that work outside of the concession hours persists among the international student population in Ireland.

Detecting illegal employment

The Workplace Relations Commission (WRC), whose Labour Inspectors inspect workplaces for Employment Permits law compliance,  has found illegal employment of non-EU nationals to be most prevalent in the catering sector, including in fast food and take-away restaurants. Some 4,830 inspections were carried out in 2016, with 404 possible breaches of the Employment Permits Acts detected.

While illegal work of non-EU nationals may also constitute a breach of immigration law, this study shows that prosecutions under the Immigration Act for illegal employment are uncommon.

The WRC has the power to prosecute both employers and employees under employment law, but the focus is usually on the employer, who is given an opportunity to rectify the matter. Migrant Rights Centre Ireland (MRCI) observes that undocumented migrants will usually lose their jobs at this point.

Report author Samantha Arnold commented:

“Illegal or undeclared work is not confined to non-EU nationals. However, given their more precarious residence status non-EU nationals are more at risk of adverse effects. Undocumented migrants may feel compelled to tolerate poor wages and working conditions rather than be identified. This study highlights the challenges faced by labour inspectors in regard to illegally employed migrants, balancing their duty to report immigration breaches with their role of protecting workers’ rights to fair wages and conditions.

The employment of non-EU nationals who fall outside the Employment Permit system, for example students, whose access to employment is covered by immigration legislation, is particularly difficult to regulate. The study highlights the need for policy responses to address both immigration and labour market-related contributing factors.”


For further information, please contact:

Samantha Arnold (Researcher, Irish National Contact Point of the European Migration Network within the ESRI) 
+353 1 863 2000
Mobile: +353 85 858 5508
Email: [email protected]

Notes for editors:

  1. Illegal Employment of non-EU Nationals will be published on the ESRI website and the European Migration Network (EMN) website at 00:01 on 6 July 2017. The embargo is 00:01 Thursday 6 July 2017.
  2. This new study is produced by the European Migration Network, which sits within the ESRI.
  3. The aim of EMN is to provide up-to-date, objective, reliable and comparable information on migration and asylum at member state and EU-level (see and
  4. Illegal employment is defined in this study to mean ‘economic activity carried out in violation of provisions set by legislation’.
  5. ‘Ireland is Home 2016: A survey of 1008 undocumented migrants’ published by the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland in 2016, is available to download at
  6. The EMN is co-funded by the European Commission DG Migration and Home Affairs and the Irish Department of Justice and Equality.

All EMN studies are compiled according to common specifications and an EU-level synthesis report is subsequently produced. The synthesis report for this study is accessible at: