Mike Brady: Labour shortages now the biggest threat to farming's growth targets

Agricultural consultant, Mike Brady.
Agricultural consultant, Mike Brady.
Where to find workers: Eastern Europeans came here in their droves during the Celtic Tiger years, but where are they when we need their valuable labour skills?

Why are farmers finding it difficult to get people to work on farms?

Labour has become the new milk quota on dairy farms and it is a growing burden for agricultural contractors, tillage, pig, poultry and horticulture enterprises.

Running a successful farm business has and will always be about managing people.

However, in today's world the concepts of a permanent pensionable job or a job for life are long gone.

This makes the job of employing and retaining staff a significant challenge for today's farm businesses.

In a modern first world economy it is generally accepted that an unemployment rate of less than 5pc is considered full employment.

In Ireland we recorded a seasonally adjusted unemployment rate of 4.4pc in May 2019, therefore we are at full employment whether we like it or not.

This low rate of unemployment inevitably leads to wage inflation and to labour movement by employees who otherwise would not move on to another job.

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This is causing major disruption at ground level in agri-food and other business sectors throughout the country.

There is free movement of labour within the European Union, the Polish and their Eastern European neighbours moved here in droves during the Celtic Tiger years, but where are they all gone now when we need their valuable labour skills again?

The unemployment rate in the EU also has plummeted, it is recorded by Eurostat at 6.4pc in April 2019. In fact, the unemployment rate in Poland has fallen to 3.7pc in April 2019. The upturn in Eastern European economies has prompted some Polish farm workers to return home and those at home not to travel abroad for work.

However, the unemployment rates are not the only reason for the dearth of labour in Ireland at present. We have to ask ourselves why do people not want to come and live in this country?

People historically have migrated to economies where they and their families can experience a better lifestyle and avail of more opportunities than that available in their home country.

The Irish, Scottish and Italians emigrated to America over 150 years ago for this very reason, but why are the people of Eastern Europe not queueing up to enter this country in 2019?

The main macro-economic reason for this is the standard of living in this country is not significantly better than those in Eastern Europe.

Yes, our wages may be higher but so too is the cost of living, in particular the cost of accommodation.

There is no point in having a well-paid job in another country if you cannot afford a place to live there.

There are high unemployment rates in Greece (18.1pc), Spain (14.0pc) and Italy (10.5pc) but the Southern Europeans are not flocking to work in Ireland.

I know our weather is somewhat less attractive, but they are not coming here for work as they cannot even contemplate getting on the ladder to better themselves.

This is filtering all the way down to farm level, so what can we do to attract some more labour into Ireland.

There is action need at both Government level (macro) and also at farm level (micro).

The following are some ideas to explore:

Macro - Government level

  • Assist recruitment companies to promote Ireland as a good place to work in target countries.
  • Issue more employment permits for non-Eu citizens.
  • Incentivise beef farmers to partner or work on other enterprises.
  • Permit those in direct-provision to work on farms.
  • Encourage employment exchange schemes for students.
  • Condition social welfare recipients to work part-time for benefits.
  • Provide taxation incentives for students, housewives etc to work part-time on farms.

Micro - Farm level

  • Farmers educate themselves to become better employers.
  • Learn about and understand the employee's needs.
  • Provide accommodation and transport for employees.
  • Flexible working hours for employees.
  • Pay for trips home for foreign employees.
  • Pay for family members to travel to Ireland and visit foreign employees.
  • Help employees to engage in local clubs and societies.
  • Use google translate and learn some vocabulary to overcome language barriers.

These are just a sample of many actions that can be taken to improve the experience of immigrant labour working on farms.

In many ways farmers have a major advantage over businesses in towns and cities in that they can provide accommodation at a much cheaper cost to such employees.

Farmers can also provide a better lifestyle for employees and their families.

Many people working in towns and cities have a romantic view of living and working on farm.

This experience can be provided but must be well panned, it certainly will not automatically fall into place.

This labour crisis on Irish farms is now at breaking point, failing to act now will have long-term implications for the entrepreneurial spirit of our farmers and ultimately the success of our global agri-food industry.

Indo Farming


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