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Wednesday 15 August 2018

Meat processors on collision course with unions over plans to recruit 2,000 non-EU workers

Unions claim meat processors are struggling to get workers because of pay

Stock image. GettyImages
Stock image. GettyImages
Louise Hogan

Louise Hogan

Meat processors are seeking a massive 2,000 permits for workers from outside the EU to counter what they describe as a "critical" shortage of labour.

A spokesman for Meat Industry Ireland (MII) said difficulties in sourcing skilled workers continued to be a serious issue for meat processors.

Similar concerns have been expressed across the wider agriculture sector, with both the IFA and Farm Relief Service (FRS) lobbying to have more work permits issued for non-EU farm workers.

"Given the labour-intensive nature of meat processing operations and the increasing complexity of cutting specifications - not only for retail business but also now for servicing international markets - the inability of plants to secure labour is resulting in the loss of value-added opportunities," said Cormac Healy of MII.

Mr Healy said that meat processors had sought to secure suitable employees at home and within the EU, but as economies improved across Europe, it was proving increasingly difficult to get staff. He said the only option left was to look for non-EU workers.

"MII has been intensively engaged with both the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation and the Department of Agriculture over recent months to highlight the critical nature of the situation and to secure additional employment permits for meat processing," he added.

Business Minister Heather Humphreys. Photo: Steve Humphries
Business Minister Heather Humphreys. Photo: Steve Humphries

However, the trade unions have taken issue with MII's plans to hire non-EU labour.

Mick Browne of SIPTU said the reason some meat processors were struggling to get workers was because pay, terms and conditions in the industry at general operative level were at "the absolute minimum" that could be "legally applied".

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He claimed many workers in the meat processing sector depended on the Government to subsidise their income through family income support.

The SIPTU official contrasted the high standards of animal welfare, food quality, food hygiene and food traceability in the meat sector with the pay and conditions of ordinary workers.

"The minimum standards (of pay and conditions) that are legally allowed are applied," Mr Browne claimed.

The SIPTU official said that rather than seeking permits for non-EU workers, processors should engage with the Labour Court and unions to determine pay and terms and conditions of employment for the industry that give "dignity" to workers.

The Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation (DBEI) confirmed that 162 work permits for non-EU deboners were issued in 2016, with a further 186 issued last year.

Meanwhile, the IFA has welcomed a commitment from the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Heather Humphreys, to treat the review of the criteria for issuing work permits for farm workers as a matter of urgency.

IFA president, Joe Healy, said the shortage of labour was now at crisis levels in the dairy, horticulture, pig and poultry sectors.

Both IFA and FRS have lobbied the DBEI for a review of the work permit application process to alleviate the worsening labour problems."We were informed at the meeting with Minister Humphreys that the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation has received an extensive report from the Department of Agriculture to support the case being made to allow work permits to be issued to non-EU citizens and that priority will be given to this," Mr Healy said.

"The DBEI is aiming to have this review completed by end of March or early April, which would then give the go-ahead to Minister Humphreys to regulate for this," he added.

A Teagasc study last year found that the expanding dairy sector will need up to 6,000 additional workers by 2025.

It is estimated that there are currently around 600 vacancies for operatives and pickers in the mushroom industry, there are 200 vacancies in the vegetable sector and up to 900 jobs in the soft fruit area. Although Ireland's unemployment rate remains at around 6pc, increased job opportunities and better wages in the construction industry have taken workers that would formerly have worked on farms or in meat factories.

Up to €17/hr is now being paid for good labourers on the buildings, compared to the €10-12/hr on offer for farm or factory work.


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