Non-EEA permits ‘not a sustainable answer’ to labour shortage – Teagasc boss

The introduction of non-European Economic Area (EEA) work permits under a new Government pilot scheme is “not a sustainable solution” to farm labour shortages, Prof. Gerry Boyle, Teagasc director, has warned.

Speaking after last week’s announcement of a new pilot scheme aimed at making it easier for certain businesses in the agri-food sector to source workers from outside the EEA, Prof. Boyle said the ideal answer is meeting employment needs at a national level.

Through new changes to the Employment Permit Regulations, signed off by Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Heather Humphreys, 500 works permits will be made available for the horticulture sector, 250 for the meat industry and 50 for the dairy sector.

“In terms of the immediate need it’s probably reasonable across the different requirements. The horticulture sector is particularly hit because of the need for fairly unskilled labour in terms of harvesting fruit and veg.”

However, he said for the dairy sector, and to a lesser extent in the beef sector, what is needed is skilled people.

It is not simply a matter of bringing in labour from outside Europe and just letting them work on farms – they have to be trained so that is a serious constraint.

“In terms of the overall issue there are far more vacancies than will be addressed by that pilot,” he said.

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

The purpose of the review was to ensure that current policies are supportive of Ireland’s emerging labour market needs – including critical skills needs; plus labour shortages for lower-skilled, lower-waged workers.

Opportunities for women

In terms of value to the horticulture sector, Prof. Boyle said the sector’s employment needs haven’t been as emphasised because its valued at a lower scale than the international exploits of the dairy sector.

Also, he says the labour issue in the horticulture sector has been ongoing for several years – particularly at harvest time. By contrast, in the dairy sector, the demand for workers is a relatively new experience.

“It is a positive development; but it is going to take a while to get a more long-term solution. The non-EEA route is only one part of the answer; but, it’s not sustainable,” he said.

In terms of the pilot scheme, Prof. Boyle highlighted looming challenges such as persuading people to come to Ireland, and challenges around languages and training.

“The ideal solution is to arrive at a situation where trained labour can be sourced nationally. But, at the same time, I think relying on the agricultural sector to supply labour is misconceived.

We’re going to need people from other walks of life, non-agricultural backgrounds, from urban centres to consider agriculture – either on a part-time or full-time basis as a career.

Prof. Boyle says other barriers include an unawareness of opportunities; and that some may have a “negative attitude” about employment option.

“It’s going to take time. But there are definitely opportunities – there are opportunities for women on a part-time basis – possibly for women to be trained up to do milking; once-a-day milking for a couple of hours.

“There are possibilities for non-dairy farmers who are not fully employed on their own enterprises to consider working on dairy farms.

“Also, you are going to have more and more contracting out so there will be outsourcing of the dairy requirement. That will obviously involve more specialised people in the drystock sector availing of opportunities for contract rearing,” he said.

‘Changing climate’

According to a recent Teagasc report, the Irish dairy sector needs 6,000 people to enter dairy farming by 2025, to meet the sector’s labour demand.

The report, called ‘The People in Dairy Project’, is based on the future people requirements of Irish dairy farming over the next nine years.

“In a situation where you have an acute shortage, any relaxation of the rules will help.

“We didn’t really anticipate the pressure that was going to build up very quickly in the dairy sector for employment. Therefore, there is a whole series of challenges around awareness in the schools and on the farmer side in creating the correct work place environment – that is hugely important.

Traditionally, the image of working on farms wasn’t as attractive as it should have been; but nowadays, with labour legislation, things have had to change in terms of minimum wage requirements and working conditions.

“Both farmers and non farmers appreciate that the whole climate is changing in terms of labour on farms. So the challenge is to catch up with the demands that are out there.

“The most important thing for a farmer hiring labour is to establish that they can afford to do that. Dairy farms have to ensure that they pay themselves a sufficient wage to start,” he concluded.