Farm Ireland

Friday 22 February 2019

Darragh McCullough: Recruiting labour from outside the EU will only weaken our position


Darragh McCullough eats, sleeps and lives farming. Photo: David Conachy
Darragh McCullough eats, sleeps and lives farming. Photo: David Conachy
'Businesses like mine that rely on manual labour are already almost totally dependent on non-nationals to keep the wheels turning'

Darragh McCullough

During the course of filming RTÉ's Big Week On The Farm I spent a night on Inís Mór off the Galway coast.

It struck me that the defining feature of all the islanders' lives was how much time they had to spend away from their families 'on the mainland' or at sea. Men of all ages recalled to me the months on end they were separated from family in the pursuit of education, a career or just making ends meet.

These days, the mobility and accessibility of loved ones abroad lessens the distance and the loneliness, but in times gone by they also had to struggle with getting the hang of English instead of relying on their native tongue.

The modern-day equivalent is being played out every spring on my farm.

As the daffodil season draws to a close, most of my flower pickers have made a beeline for home. It's the first trip back to Romania for each and every one of them since they arrived on the bus after a three to four day overland trip back in January.

With cash from three months of solid work, they all chose to fly home, regardless of cost.

Each and every one was a willing worker and deserved every euro they took back. In fact, they took home an extra few bob after I got a visit from an inspector from the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC).

Despite always priding myself on doing everything above board and paying staff every penny they are entitled to, I didn't feel overly confident about the woman from the WRC examining my payroll and records - even if she was very nice.

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"Just a visit to help you in relation to any queries you might have," she assured me. However, there were a few small alarm bells dingling in my head.

It was only when we started delving into the minutiae of timesheets that questions over Sunday premiums, the rostering of adequate rest days, and whether holiday pay matched exactly eight per cent of the hours worked began to materialise.

To be fair, these are all things that every employer is supposed to be on top of, but just as in any exam situation, you suddenly find you haven't as sharp a grasp of the finer points of the law as you might like.

The visit ended up costing me a nice few bob when we totted up all the outstanding pay, but I am happier getting it all paid up and systems sorted for the future than getting a letter from a solicitor informing me that a previous employee is querying under-payment.

And it was a bit embarrassing witnessing how amazed and delighted the staff were with their unexpected windfalls. By right, they should have been annoyed that their entitlements weren't being paid in full.

It was with this in mind that I found myself slightly taken aback with headlines in recent weeks that farmers and agri-businesses were lobbying hard to get special exemptions from the Department of Enterprise to allow them to recruit people from outside the EU due to the "chronic labour shortage".

Businesses like mine that rely on manual labour are already almost totally dependent on non-nationals to keep the wheels turning.

And this is the reality that I've had to get comfortable with since the day I started employing people nearly 20 years ago.

Back then, most of my non-national staff were Latvian, before we morphed into a Slovakian operation, to the point where we are now a definitively Romanian ship.

And while it is true that many don't speak any English, I find that my staff's enthusiasm for the job more than compensates for any shortcomings in the communication department.

In fact, many of my longest serving non-nationals have developed a fluency that enables them to do the vast majority of tasks around the farm with great competency.

I'm under no illusion that they are here because Ireland is such a wonderful place to be.

In the same way that the Inís Mór men desperately missed their families for months on end, the non-nationals that work for me and others are making huge sacrifices for the long term benefit of those back home.

Bear in mind that the €400 or €500 they earn a week here is a good month's wages back in Romania.

This disparity between the economic opportunities here compared to Romania and probably much of Hungary, Bulgaria and beyond makes me wonder if it necessary to bring in staff from beyond the EU's borders.

Do we really need to take in people from even poorer regions of the world to do the work that many Irish people will not?

To my mind this would only undermine the opportunities that so many less well-off EU citizens have come to rely on.

Surely in an era when the likes of Trump, Putin and Co would only love to see the European project weaken just another little bit, it's time for us to pull together with our fellow EU citizens?

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