Farmers face labour shortage as poor pay and employment law breaches plague sector

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Ciaran Moran

Ciaran Moran

The Irish agri-food sector remains one of the lowest paying, while significant employment issues are highlighted as farmers struggle to find labour.

The latest figures from the Workplace Relations Commission show significant issues in the agriculture sector in relation to employment laws.

The Commission reported that over 800 employees were affected in these businesses with over €56,000 in unpaid wages recouped.

Of the 48 agriculture businesses visited in 2017, 75pc were in breach of employment laws.

It comes as an acute lack of workers has been highlighted as a significant roadblock for the agriculture sector by a host of industry stakeholders.

Irish Farmers Association President Joe Healy recently said 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.

According to an industry People in Dairy Action Plan, the sector needs to attract 6,000 people (future farmers and employees) by 2025, following a dramatic increase in recent years in the number of dairy farmers that are becoming employers, with 25pc of Irish farmers now milking 100 cows or more.

It also says one of the biggest factors in attracting and retaining people is that dairy farms must be desirable places to work.

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Labour Shortages

In a recent Dail exchange on the labour shortages in agriculture, Minister for Agriculture, Michael Creed said the sector's labour shortages are one of the downsides of an economy that is nearing full employment and he said he is acutely conscious of how it impacts on the agri-food sector, both inside and outside the farm gate.

The Minister said the People in Dairy Action Plan by Tom Moran, the former Secretary General of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, in particular on the dairy side but also the labour issues inside the farm gate.

"One point he made is that a transition is required from farmers who have traditionally worked on their own to being employers, particularly those who have expanded substantially on the dairy side.

"That brings a host of additional challenges. Recruitment is one but retention is another. There is a host of issues around retention.

"It has to do with salaries but other issues too including terms and conditions of employment that the expanding dairy sector needs to grapple with," he said.

Fianna Fail's Billy Kelleher noted that the pay rates in the agricultural and processing sectors are on the lower end of the scale.

"That brings about problems with competitiveness straightaway.

"Equally, it causes problems in recruitment.

"When people are paid €9 or €10 an hour but companies and factories can pay more, people drift out of the agricultural sector.

"In the short and medium term that can be addressed by work permits but for the long-term sustainability of agriculture and to ensure that there is a constant pool of people with skills and who are interested in making a career beyond the traditional farm manager and farm apprenticeship schemes we have to be more creative and imaginative in terms of policy and within the industry.

"The industry must become an attractive one so that people will want to forge a career out of it, not only by owning farms but in all the sectors through to processing," he said.


However, the labour courts have dealt with a host of farm employment disputes in recent years, which serve to highlight some of the issues at farm level.

In one case, a farmer was forced to pay over €10,500 to a farm labourer after multiple findings against him by the Workplace Relations Commission for unfair dismissal.

In another a recent case, a 220-cow dairy farmer had to pay farm labourer almost €5,000 after a host of workplace complaints, including the payment of a premium rate for working on Sundays.

The complaints arise from issues regarding the number of hours worked per week, the rate of pay for the job and the application of a premium rate for working on Sundays. The dairy farmer disputed the claims.

The farm owner produced a number of documents reinforcing his belief that he had acted appropriately, including a contract signed by the complainant, wage slips and attendance sheets.

However, the court found that these records produced were unreliable and the farmhand was awarded €450 regarding the non-payment of a Sunday premium, €1,000 regarding the requirement to work in excess of the maximum weekly working hours and €3,500 regarding the complainant being paid less than what was due to him.

'And farmers wonder why they cant get anyone'

When we highlight these cases it inevitably leads to a huge reaction from readers. The most common reaction is normally 'if farmers paid a decent wage they would have no issue getting workers' one reader said "some farmers still think they are living in the 1950's where it was near slave labour".


Teagasc's People in Dairy Project noted that employee turnover is lower when employees obtained higher than the average pay rates in industry, flexible work hours, limited weekend hours and very long shifts, training and development opportunities, feedback, appreciation for a job well-done, individual attention to career development and mentoring and an enjoyable work environment with good facilities.

It said these results showed that employers that adopted correct human resource management practices had not only greater employee retention but higher overall farm profitability.

The project recommended that new training programmes be developed for existing dairy farm employers, with a special emphasis on HR skills, including Health and Safety.

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