A shortage of labour has been building up in certain sub-sectors of the Irish agri-food sector in recent times. The Deputy is correct to refer to the dairy sector, but labour pressures also exist in the horticultural and meat processing sectors. The reasons for the shortages include: the significant value added growth expansion of the sector in recent years; the growth in the economy as a whole, now approaching full employment; and also economic growth in other EU countries which have traditionally supplied workers for the sector.
My Department and I have had extensive engagement with the industry on the shortage of labour in the dairy, horticulture and meat processing sectors. The issues within the Horticulture sector have been discussed at the Horticulture Industry Forum which my colleague, Minister of State Doyle, co-chairs, while the challenges faced by the meat processing industry in securing labour have also been raised with me by meat industry representatives. I am aware of the impact that these labour shortages are having, and I am committed to helping the sectors involved find appropriate solutions.
In relation to the dairy sector, last November I established a multi stakeholder industry group with a view to ensuring that Irish dairying has access to the human capital it requires to achieve future growth. The Chair, former Secretary General of my Department Tom Moran, expects to finalise an action plan towards the end of this month which will address the short term and medium term labour issues facing the dairy sector. This action plan will be submitted to the Food Wise High Level Implementation Committee (HLIC) for approval.
In addition to the work of this group, a range of other measures are being pursued by the dairy sector to try to attract and retain labour, including exchanges with New Zealand; and efforts at regional level to engage with and attract people on the live register, homemakers and drystock farmers to avail of opportunities on dairy farms.
My Department and I are also engaged in discussions with my colleague the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation and her officials in relation to employment permits for non-European Economic Area nationals, as a further strand in the range of options available to address the labour gap. These discussions are ongoing and I do not want to pre-empt their outcome.