Working 11 hours a day, seven days a week, in a restaurant takeaway over two and a half years with only Christmas Day off for total pay of €5,000. It’s not how most people imagine they will start a new life far from home. But that, claims Mohammad Younis from Pakistan, was his introduction to Ireland.
Most of his 20 years here have been dominated by a lengthy employment rights battle with his employer followed by unsuccessful efforts to recover even one cent of an award of some €91,000 made to him over breaches of those rights.
Now aged 68 and in failing health, Younis has decided to return to Pakistan and to the family he left behind in pursuit of a better life for all of them.
‘He said I will make a future for you here and for your family to come here too. I didn’t come for myself, I came to make a better life for my family’
Younis speaks Urdu and has very limited English. Through an interpreter, he says he reluctantly came to Ireland in September 2002, having been persuaded by his cousin, Amjad Hussein, whom he claims promised him work and a work permit. Younis says he asked his cousin to employ one of his nine children instead but his cousin said no, he wanted Younis.
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“He said I will make a future for you here and for your family to come here too. I didn’t come for myself, I came to make a better life for my family.”
After his work permit expired in July 2003, he got no fresh permit, he says. He continued to work in his cousin’s Dublin takeaway. His hours were from 4pm to 3.30am daily, he had just Christmas Day off and shared accommodation with six or seven others who also worked for his cousin, he claims.
“I used to think, ‘I can’t speak English, it’s a big disadvantage. If I could, I could talk to others.’ I felt trapped, my permit was not renewed, I was afraid.”
He claims he tried to raise his permit situation with his cousin but was told not to keep asking about it or his cousin would “go to the Garda” about him. “In our country, there is a lot of fear of the police, I was afraid of the Garda.”
Over his first two and a half years here, he claims he got paid a total €5,000 for his work, after which he was paid wages of about €250 weekly. His only contact with his wife and children in Pakistan during this time was by phone and he says he missed them very much.
His situation remained like that until he was brought by Mr Hussein’s wife to a drop-in centre operated by the Migrant Rights Centre of Ireland (MRCI) in 2009 with a view to regularising his employment situation.
Edel McGinley, Director of MRCI, says the organisation was concerned about his situation and sought to speak with him separately. In late 2009, Mr Younis ceased working for his cousin and in 2010, with assistance of MRCI, initiated a case before the Workplace Relations Commission.
In March 2011, a rights commissioner awarded him some €91,000: €5,000 for breaches of the Organisation of Working Time Act 1997 and €86,134 for breaches of minimum wage legislation over a number of years.
In August 2012, the High Court ruled that because Mr Younis was in an irregular migration situation, he could not benefit from employment law protections
When Mr Hussein neither appealed that decision nor paid the money, the Labour Court issued two determinations requiring that the sums be paid in September 2011.
Mr Hussein, who disputed Mr Younis’s claims about his employment treatment, then brought a successful High Court challenge to the Labour Court decision. In August 2012, the High Court ruled that because Mr Younis was in an irregular migration situation, he could not benefit from employment law protections.
Three years later, in a judgment welcomed by trade unions and others, Younis won his Supreme Court appeal over the High Court ruling.
Because Mr Hussein had not appealed the original decision of the rights commissioner, the only role of the Labour Court was to approve the latter decision, the Supreme Court found.
Exceeded its jurisdiction
The High Court’s role, the Supreme Court said, was confined to considering whether the determinations of the Labour Court were issued properly. The procedure adopted by the Labour Court, it ruled, complied with the relevant law and the High Court, by making inquiries into the irregular status of the Mr Younis, had exceeded its jurisdiction.
“All the time it was before the courts, I was thinking I would get justice,” says Mr Younis. “I am very grateful for the big support from the MRCI.”
He has failed to get one cent of the €91,000 award despite many efforts by his solicitors, MacGuill & Company, acting on a pro bono basis, to enforce the award. “I got no payment at all, nothing. There was no communication from my cousin through all of this, no payment, no communication.”
With support from the MRCI, Younis eventually got hostel accommodation and a weekly payment of €19.10. He secured stamp 4 status, which means he can work legally, and has applied for Irish citizenship.
He has moved through a number of housing situations but his limited English has contributed to him having less success with employment, says Ms McGinley. “He was relying on the legal case. It took a long time and went all the way to the Supreme Court.”
He became very ill during the Covid-19 pandemic and was hospitalised. He says he wondered: ‘If I die here, will anyone know?’
Mr Younis kept himself busy by working voluntarily in a mosque where he is regarded with much affection.
He became very ill during the Covid-19 pandemic and was hospitalised. He says he wondered: “If I die here, will anyone know?” and felt lonely and isolated but is very grateful to the MRCI for its support during that time. “I will never forget that, they are my family here.”
His pandemic experience, missing his family and a phone call from his mother in Pakistan, telling him she was very sick and urging him to “come home, come home”, are among the reasons for his decision to return to Pakistan.
‘God will help me’
Asked how he feels about his time in Ireland, he says he feels good about Irish people and does not regard what happened to him as the fault of anyone apart from his employer.
He does not know what he will do back in Pakistan. “If I had been paid the money, I would be in a position to live a better life. I do not know what I will do, it will be difficult but I believe God will help me.”
He hopes his family will be able to help him but says he does not know what will happen as he has been away for 20 years. That time has been “very hard” for his wife and, if she and his family could come here, he would not think about going back, he says.
Ms McGinley says the criminal sanctions under the National Minimum Wage Act must be enforced but, to date, this appears never to have happened.
“There is no major deterrent against employers who exploit in this way. The enforcement mechanisms of the state are clearly not working.”
“To add insult to injury, Mohammad was also refused access to the Insolvency Payments Scheme to recover his unpaid wages because he was not considered to be in ‘insurable employment’ in the eyes of the law due to his irregular immigration status,” she says.
“A person working in the State, regardless of their legal status, is a worker and the State has a duty to officially recognise them as workers with rights and access to protections such as the Insolvency Payments Scheme. It is shameful that we deny workers like Mohammad access to redress and rights. This needs to change to protect vulnerable workers.”
Mr Younis’s friends and supporters here are seeking donations to make up for what the MRCI says is an “abysmal” failure by the State to have adequate enforcement mechanisms to vindicate his rights and secure the compensation awarded to him.
The MRCI has asked those who want to help Younis to make donations via http://www.idonate.ie/crowdfunder/MohammadYounis or via https://www.mrci.ie.