I thank Senator Victor Boyhan for raising the issue. I come from a rural background and agriculture is a very important part of our economy. It has played a very important part in our economic recovery. The good thing about agriculture on this island is that all the regions benefit from it. It is not just focused on one area.
Ireland's overarching labour market policy is to promote the sourcing of skills and labour needs from within the workforce of Ireland and the European Economic Area. In recent years, the employment permits system has been oriented towards highly-skilled occupations which are required for the development of the productive economy. As the economy improves and we approach full employment, labour as well as skills needs are becoming apparent in some sectors with the consequent potential to constrict growth due to labour shortages.
It is clear that difficulties are emerging in the agri-sector in particular for low-skilled, lower-waged workers in the horticulture, dairy and meat processing areas. In recognising the changing economy and labour market and the challenges faced by enterprises in attracting sufficient labour, my officials are undertaking a review of the economic migration policies underpinning the current employment permits system. The purpose of the review is to ensure our current policies are fully supportive of Ireland’s emerging labour market needs, be they skills or labour shortages.
In undertaking any adjustment in the orientation of the system, the interest of the 230,000 people on the live register in Ireland and the 17.5 million unemployed in the EU 28 must be remembered, and a balance must be maintained that does not disadvantage these jobseekers. The review is overseen by an interdepartmental group, chaired by my Department, and includes a public and stakeholder consultation as well as an EU and international benchmarking exercise. A report is expected before the end of June.
I am aware of the particular challenges facing parts of the agrifood sector which employs over 173,000 people across the regions which, as I said earlier, is nearly 8.7% of the workforce of the country. It contributes almost 8% to gross national income with exports worth almost €13.5 billion. It is extremely important to us and it is important that we in government ensure that any constraints that are there are recognised and that demands are met. It is also a very important indigenous sector and its reach in rural Ireland brings jobs and value to every region. For this reason, I asked that, in advance of completing the full review, the emerging labour shortages in the sector be prioritised in its deliberations. The review group has been examining this issue and I expect to be a position to make an announcement regarding the agrifood sector very shortly. We have been in consultation with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine.