Employers who falsely designate their workers as self-employed to save on PRSI contributions have been described as "thieves", "highway gangmen" and "robbers" in a Seanad debate this evening.

The Seanad was debating the Protection of Employment (Measures to Counter False Self-Employment) Bill aimed at preventing the practice, which results in misclassified workers losing out on the social welfare entitlements and legal protections they would have if correctly treated as direct employees.

Among its measures, the legislation seeks to impose the same penalties on employers for evading PRSI payments as would apply for other tax law offences.

Opening the debate, Labour Senator and Employment Affairs Spokepserson Ged Nash said the state was losing PRSI money "hand over fist" for the Social Insurance Fund which pays for social welfare benefits and pensions, while without those contributions workers were also losing benefits.

He said there were egregious arrangements with intermediary arrangements and "Byzantine" structures being used that were deeply flawed, unethical and wrong.

He also claimed "high-profile media personalities" were availing of corporate structures to avoid PRSI, then hosting programmes decrying that the state was not spending enough on health and welfare - and described this as "an absolute cheek". 

Senator Nash noted that bad employers were undercutting decent employers and putting legitimate businesses at risk.

He said that those rogue employers only understood one language when they fell foul of the law - serious fines, penalties, and sanctions including prison.

He said it beggared belief that there were not similar enforcement procedures for those avoiding their PRSI obligations.

Senator Nash said employment status needed to be clearly defined in law, not a matter of opinion - and his bill would see clear definitions and penalties for tax offences extended to PRSI breaches.

The Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection Regina Doherty said that there were fundamental flaws in the Labour bill - and she could not support it at this stage.

She said she was not hung up on whose name was on the bill - adding that everyone wanted to avoid unintended consequences, with no wriggle room or ambiguity.

She noted that attempts to extend tax legislation to PRSI could only be managed by the Department of Finance.

She defended the role of the SCOPE section of her department which adjudicates on the employment status of disputed workers - and said there was no need to extend that function to the Workplace Relations Commission as proposed in Senator Nash's bill.

She pointed out that two workers doing the same job could have different employment status - one self employed and one a direct employee - depending on the circumstances.

Independent Senator Gerard Craughwell described employers engaging on bogus self-employment as "thieves" "highway gangmen" and "robbers" stealing from society by not paying their fair share.

He said the only agency these people feared were the Revenue Commissioners.

Sinn Féin Senator Paul Gavan agreed that bogus self-employment was costing hundreds of millions in lost revenue, and it would not be appropriate to tinker around the edges with the problem.

While speakers referred to the prevalence of bogus self-employment in the construction sector, other sectors were also mentioned including IT, aviation, financial services and the rise of the gig or platform economy.

A number of speakers criticised Fianna Fáil for failing to attend the debate, and accused the party of disrespect after its Employment Affairs and Social Protection Spokesperson Willie O'Dea brought forward his own new bill on the issue today.