The government had the option to restrict the entry of immigrants until 2009 from the east European and Mediterranean countries due to join the community.
The new move will mean fewer work permits being available for other non-EU countries. In recent years, a substantial number of immigrants have come from English-speaking countries like the U.S., Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
“Clearly, in the context of the changes that we are going to bring in, we won’t be granting as many permits to people from outside the new European Economic Area,” Harney told RTE. “People from other parts of the world will only come here on the basis of skills shortages. We won’t have the liberal approach we have had in recent times. We now have a much larger market to draw labor from.”
During the two Nice Treaty referendum campaigns, the issue of the new entrant immigrants had been raised by opponents who claimed there would be a major influx of foreign workers and a threat to Irish jobs.
Harney’s new laws will mean that people from the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Poland, Slovenia and Slovakia will no longer require work permits to take up jobs in Ireland.
Access to EU labor markets for people from Cyprus and Malta is provided for automatically in the Treaty of Accession, the Department of Enterprise and Employment said.
Harney said the government believes full liberalization for accession states’ workers is the “appropriate thing to do to show our commitment to the European Union and our support for enlargement.”
At the moment, about 35 percent of work permits go to people from the accession countries. Workers from non-EU countries require work permits or visas but EU citizens do not. Last year, about 40,000 work permits were issued.
Other EU member states, including Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden, Spain, Greece and Britain, have also decided to allow new country workers in from day one of access. Other EU countries will restrict entry.
Harney said the legislation will be enacted before April 16, date for the signing of the accession treaties.
“Despite a softening in the [labor] market in the recent past, there will still be a requirement to supplement our indigenous labor and skills pool,” Harney said.
However, she added, the new law provides for “implementation of a safeguard mechanism in the event of our labor market suffering serious shocks during the transition period provided for under the Treaty of Accession”.
The transition period runs up to 2009.
Harney said she does not envision that invoking the safeguards would be necessary but it was prudent to provide for the possibility of dramatic changes.
“I think it would be very foolish not to have the safeguard in place because, to a large extent, we are going into the unknown here,” she said.
The new law, the Employment Permits Bill, will also bring in a system of “close monitoring” of demand for work permits, especially for low-skilled workers, from outside the EU.
It will put the issuing of work permits on a full statutory basis for the first time with tough enforcement measures.
Penalties for non-compliance will range from fines of euro 3,000 euros and/or 12 months in jail for conviction in the District Court to euro 250,000 and/or 10 years in jail if dealt with by a higher court.