800 agri sector work permits announced under pilot scheme

The Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Heather Humphreys, has announced a pilot scheme to address labour shortages in the horticulture, meat processing and dairy sectors.

The minister signed off on the changes to the Employment Permit Regulations today which is aimed at making it easier for certain businesses in the agri-food sector to source workers from outside the European Economic Area (EEA).

The changes, which will operate on a pilot basis initially, include 500 permits for the horticulture sector, 250 for the meat industry and 50 for the dairy sector.

Minister Humphreys said: “As we approach full employment, labour shortages at the lower-skilled end of the jobs market are becoming apparent in some sectors.

This has the potential to constrict growth if these needs are not met. Parts of the agri-food sector are particularly affected in the immediate term.

Earlier this year, the minister asked her department to review the economic migration policies underpinning the current employment permits system.

The purpose of the review is to ensure that our current policies are fully supportive of Ireland’s emerging labour market needs, be they critical skills needs or labour shortages for lower-skilled, lower-waged workers.

The ongoing review is being overseen by an interdepartmental group, chaired by the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation. A report is due to be presented to the minister by the end of June 2018.

Announcing today’s changes, which come in advance of the review group’s final report, Minister Humphreys said: “The review of our employment permits regime is timely and I am happy with progress to date.

“However, I am acutely aware of the particular challenges facing parts of the agri-food sector. The sector employs about 173,000 people across the regions, contributes almost 8% to gross national income, and currently has exports worth almost €13.5 billion.

It is our most important indigenous sector and its reach into rural Ireland brings jobs and value to every region. For this reason, I asked the review group, in advance of completing the full review, to prioritise the emerging labour shortages in the sector in its deliberations.

It is understood that today’s announcement is a first step in addressing some of the challenges facing the sector.

Minister Humphreys elaborated that the move is a departure from the current employment permits regime, which has generally focused on critical skills gaps at the higher end of the labour market.

However, big pressures have emerged at the lower-skilled end of the market.

In seeking to deal with these pressures, I am also conscious that any changes introduced must not disrupt the domestic labour market.

The review group, taking a cross-sectoral approach, accepts there is evidence of an increasingly challenging environment to recruit and retain staff.

The Government Strategy, Food Wise 2025, has also identified ambitious and challenging growth projections for the agri-food sector.

The minister continued: “I have decided to introduce a temporary scheme to alleviate the immediate difficulties that companies in the sector are experiencing. This scheme will allow workers in the horticulture, meat processing and dairy sectors from non-EEA countries to access the labour market.

“I am applying a quota to ensure that in the longer-term, strategies are put in place to source labour supply from both the domestic and European labour markets and to invest in innovative technologies for the sector.

“A new minimum remuneration threshold of €22,000 is being introduced for these occupations. Furthermore, there will be specific obligations on the employers around the welfare and prospects of the foreign nationals employed.

“This includes ensuring they have access to suitable accommodation and to training in areas such as language skills,” the minister stated.

Dairy labour

Specifically, in relation to the dairy sector Minister Humphreys acknowledged the increased demand for on-farm workers, and how the issue has been compounded by the challenging winter and spring weather.

“I am aware that my colleague Michael Creed, Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, has established a ‘People in the Dairy Sector Stakeholder Group’ to consider the short and long-term labour needs on dairy farms.

I understand that an action plan will be published in the coming weeks.

Minister Humphreys said she expects the report of the inter-departmental review group, due this summer, to recommend a strategy for economic migration to meet the state’s changing labour needs into the future.

Included in this will be the medium and long-term labour requirements in the agri-food sector.