The Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Heather Humphreys has signed off on changes to Employment Permit Regulations, which will make it easier for certain businesses in the agri-food sector to source workers from outside the 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.
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.
Minister Humphreys said as the Irish economy approaches 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,” she said.
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.
"I am acutely aware of the particular challenges facing parts of the agri-food sector. 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.”
The changes allow for a pilot, quota-based system that will address the immediate needs of the horticulture, meat processing and dairy sectors.
“This is a departure from our current employment permits regime, which has generally focused on critical skills gaps at the higher end of the labour market as we position Ireland for further growth in the knowledge economy.
Like many developed countries, however, we are now seeing pressures 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 Minister said.
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.
Specifically, in relation to the dairy sector Minister Humphreys said she is aware that an increased demand for on-farm workers in the dairy sector has been compounded by the challenging winter and spring weather.
"I am also 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.”
The Minister 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 longer term labour requirements in the agri-food sector.
Teagasc director Professor Gerry Boyle recently said dairy farmers are facing an "unparalleled situation" in terms of labour and the challenges ahead.
"The number of dairy herds with over 100 cows has risen to nearly 50pc. That's up from 13pc in 2005.
"Close to 3,000 extra jobs will be needed over the next decade on dairy farms and that clearly is going to create issues of where that labour is going to come from and also the training of that labour," he said.
Although Prof Boyle highlighted the positive side of job creation in the sector, he says the issue of managing farm labour has been neglected for "far too long".
IFA President Joe Healy has welcomed the announcement as a positive first step.
“Irish agriculture, especially labour intensive and/or expanding sectors such as horticulture, dairy and pigs, has a genuine need of additional labour from outside Europe as we approach full employment and recovering EU economies have labour needs of their own,” Mr Healy said.
“It is important that Minister Humphreys would provide a timeline and framework for the operational review of this pilot, so that the operation of the scheme can be assessed against each of the three agricultural sectors’ needs,” Mr Healy said.
“I am glad to read that where sectors put in place strategies to source and retain labour from the domestic and European labour markets, and where they invest in innovative technologies, as the sectors have done, the Minister would be open to granting additional permit quotas. It will be important to define the conditions in which this might be achieved,” he added.
“We now need clarity to be provided urgently as to how individual farmer employers can apply for these permits, and the time framework within which the pilot will be reviewed, and hopefully amended if necessary and extended as required,” he concluded.
Farmers have welcomed a commitment from the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation (DBEI) Heather Humphreys that her Department is treating the review of the criteria for issuing work permits for farm workers from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) as a matter of urgency.