Labour shortages a threat to beef sector's growth plans

Meat processors are looking to Brazil and the Ukraine to fill an estimated 2,000 vacancies in the sector
Meat processors are looking to Brazil and the Ukraine to fill an estimated 2,000 vacancies in the sector
Claire Fox

Claire Fox

Brexit and the potential for a trade war between Europe and the US are dominating the economic headlines, but labour shortages could well prove the most immediate threat to our booming economy.

There are thousands of job vacancies across the agricultural sector, and the labour shortage is most acute in the meat processing sector where factories are now looking beyond the EU for workers.

The situation for processors is "urgent and critical", according to Cormac Healy of Meat Industry Ireland (MII).

"Companies are facing critical shortages. It's a very labour-intensive industry, and when there's a shortage of labour it could undermine our ability to supply new markets and the growth of the industry," said Mr Healy.

Last month, Business Minister Heather Humphreys announced the introduction of a pilot work permit scheme which will make it easier to source workers from outside the EU.

These include 500 permits for the horticulture sector, 250 for the meat sector and 50 for the dairy industry. Companies availing of the work permit scheme must pay a minimum of €22,000 per annum, which equates to a 39-hour week at a €10.85 hourly rate compared to the minimum wage rate of €9.55 per hour.

While agriculture stakeholder groups have largely welcomed the introduction of the scheme, SIPTU claims the scheme is a reflection of poor pay and conditions in the meat processing sector.

"There wouldn't be a requirement for additional work permits if the terms and conditions meat industry employers offered were improved," SIPTU's agriculture sector organiser Mick Browne told the Farming Independent.

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"Our view is that the terms and conditions are so poor that meat processors won't attract new people in to the industry here."

Mr Browne also claimed that many meat processing employees have to be supported by social welfare as their pay is not sustainable, something he believes "has to change".

"Many people working for processing companies are supported by the taxpayer which has to change," he claimed.

"The meat industry supports high standards in traceability and food quality but it doesn't apply these same standards to the rates of pay."

Mr Browne added that the meat industry should put a career path in place for employees. He also called on processors to engage with trade unions to examine ways in which pay conditions could be improved.

"The argument the industry puts forward is that all industry employers pay the same rate but we would be calling for employers to engage with the trade union movement and Labour Court so that pay can be on a level playing field and increased."

However, Cormac Healy insisted that the work permits scheme "isn't about cheap labour"; he said that the minimum wage offered in Ireland is higher when compared to the UK and many of our EU counterparts, and that this has to be taken into account if the Irish meat sector is to remain competitive.

"The Irish minimum wage far exceeds the UK and EU. It's not about cheap labour," he said.

"We have exhaustedly worked with the domestic and EU labour pool and are constantly bringing in new initiatives to retain staff."

He added: "Across the board there's no company not affected by labour shortages.

"I expect that there will be a significant level of applications from meat processors for the work permits."

Mr Healy added that he expects non-EU workers to be sourced from Ukraine and Brazil, countries which traditionally have a high supply of low-skilled processing workers.

But unions claim processors must improve pay and conditions to attract workers

‘Work permits are only one part of the jigsaw’

Work permits are only one part of the jigsaw puzzle in attaining more workers for the growing dairy sector, says Teagasc dairy researcher Paidi Kelly.

He told the Farming Independent that more work needs to be done to make dairying more attractive as a career.

“It’s about demand versus supply. Supply of workers is at a 10-year low with the improvement of the economy,” he said.

“Permits will increase supply but that’s only one part of the jigsaw. We need to make farms better places to work and roll out lean farm approaches nationwide and HR initiatives.

“It’s about completely professionalising the industry.

“There’s an urgent need for more dairy operatives on the ground, but equally urgent is professionalising the industry and making it attractive to sons and daughters of farmers 10 years down the line by putting in place proper finishing times and set working hours.”

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