Moving to the Emerald Isle? Our advice for a successful relocation to Northern Ireland

August 20, 2012

The Law Centre (NI) and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission recently updated their comprehensive guide; “Your rights in Northern Ireland–A guide for migrant workers,” which is available in a number of languages. We found this an interesting read, having received several queries lately from non-EEA foreign nationals who are seeking to work in Northern Ireland and want to know what rights they can expect whilst on assignment or when making a permanent move there. 

In this blog we intend to explore some of the history and background of immigration to Northern Ireland, highlight key parts of the updated guide and share our own advice and tips for any individuals who are considering a move to this country.

Northern Ireland & Immigration – A Very Brief History

The global economic recession of recent years has affected many countries, and has inevitably caused immigration to Northern Ireland to dwindle.  Yet in spite of this, in the twelve years since the new millennium began Northern Ireland has still experienced a high volume of immigration and in Ireland as a whole, reports have suggested that numbers of migrant workers are at their highest peak in centuries.  Indeed, we have read that the number of international migrants who entered Northern Ireland on long term assignments in the last ten years is estimated at around 122,000, with a large number coming from Central and Eastern Europe.

So what makes Northern Ireland such an attractive prospect for non-EEA migrants?  In 2000, reports show that employers were hiring Portuguese nationals to fill vacancies in the food processing industry and hospital vacancies were filled by nurses from South Asia and the Philippines.  

The biggest impact, however, came when the A8 accession states joined the European Union (EU) on 1 May 2004. Most of the EU Member States imposed temporary restrictions which limited the ability of nationals from the accession countries to work there.  However, certain countries including the UK, Ireland and Sweden, chose not to impose such restrictions and accordingly became host to A8 migrants seeking employment and a new life abroad.

By contrast, in 2007 when Bulgaria and Romania entered the EU, the UK Government restricted access to its labour market for nationals from these countries.  All such labour restrictions on these two countries will automatically expire on the 1st January 2014.  But in July of this year, Ireland’s Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation (DEJI) announced that it would be removing these transitional work restrictions with immediate effect, ahead of the cut off date.  Bulgarians and Romanians therefore now enjoy the same employment rights in Northern Ireland as nationals from any of the original EU Member States.

So what guidance can be given to those people who want to migrate to Northern Ireland?  The following advice based on both our own experiences and ‘Your Rights in Northern Ireland’ guide.

EEA Nationals

If you are a national of an European Economic Area (EEA) Member State, according to European Treaty rights, you have the freedom to enter the United Kingdom as a “worker” using only your passport or travel document and you do not need a visa or entry clearance. 

You are considered a worker if you are working, seeking work or even if you are working 11 hours or less a week.  You may even be classified as worker if you cannot work due to illness, are retired, or have worked in the UK previously.  

Self-employed persons also have similar rights to workers and if your family are also EEA nationals, they can join you in Northern Ireland without a visa or entry clearance.  ‘Family members’ for these purposes cover a spouse or civil partner, children or grandchildren under 21 who are dependent on you and other relatives who are dependent on you. 

Note that if your family members are non-EEA nationals you will need to obtain a family permit which will grant them entry into Northern Ireland.

Once you have arrived in the UK, you should apply for a registration certificate which will show you are entitled to remain in the UK.  If you are in employment this will be valid for 5 years, unless your work is temporary in which case it will last for 6 months and is renewable.  Any accompanying members of your family should apply for residence cards which will be stamped in their passports and valid for five years

If you have worked for 5 years in the UK you can obtain a permanent residence card and you may remain in the UK even if you cease to qualify as a “worker,” and may apply for British Citizenship at a later time.

Non-EEA Foreign Nationals

Working in Northern Ireland

If you are a non-EEA national, you must obtain permission to live and work in the UK before you travel there.  The old work permit system was replaced by the Points Based System (PBS) in 2008 and you will need to apply for a visa under one of the five separate ‘tiers.’

If you are applying under Tier 2 (Skilled Workers) or Tier 5 (Temporary Workers) you must have a UK sponsor who has made you an offer of employment.  The requirements differ for each category, but you will need to score a minimum number of points which are awarded for meeting various criteria such as having a sponsor, meeting salary and maintenance thresholds and demonstrating proficiency in the English language.

Your Rights

National Insurance

Once you have arrived in Northern Ireland, your first step should be to apply to the Social Security Agency for a National Insurance (NI) number.  This is required for employment and social security purposes, and will keep track of your tax and NI contributions.

Employment Rights

If the employment contract you are given is not in your own language then you must ask for a translation before you sign it.  It is important you are aware of what the job will involve and that you have the chance to question anything you are unsure of.

You should not be treated differently from your colleagues just because you are not an Irish national. If you feel that you are experiencing different treatment, then the first stage in resolving this is to speak to your employer.  Your local Citizens Advice Bureau or the Labour Relations Agency will also be able to offer advice.  Ultimately, employment rights can be enforced legally in an employment court (Tribunal), but this should be very much a last resort.

You should not accept any offer of work for ‘cash in hand,’ which is when an employer pays you for your work without paying taxes on your earnings.  This is illegal and you will be in breaking the conditions of your UK visa.  As summarised by the guide, If you work illegally:

  • it will be almost impossible for you to enforce any of your legal rights (apart from the right not to be discriminated against),

  • you may not be entitled to social security benefits if you become unemployed at some time in the future;

  • it may affect your right to remain in Northern Ireland.

Health care

Most health care services in Northern Ireland are provided to members of the public free of charge by the Health and Social Care services.

Points Based System migrants who are living in Ireland on a temporary basis will be entitled to free emergency and immediately necessary treatment and routine (non-emergency) treatments.

You will generally have to pay for treatment provided by dentists and opticians, but you can qualify for full access to free treatment by demonstrating that you are ‘ordinarily resident’ or living, in Northern Ireland.

We hope that this blog has provided some useful guidance for any foreign nationals who are considering a move to Northern Ireland.  If you’ve already relocated there, write to us, we’d love to hear your stories.