I thank the Chair and the committee for having us in. I begin my presentation by quoting the description on the website of the Department of Enterprise, Trade, and Employment of the critical skills employment permit:
The Critical Skills Employment Permit is designed to attract highly skilled people into the labour market with the aim of encouraging them to take up permanent residence in the State. Eligible occupations under this type of permit are deemed to be critically important to growing Ireland’s economy, are highly demanded and highly skilled, and in significant shortage of supply in our labour market.
I wish to separate that statement into two parts, each of which, in my view, is separate and independent of the other and should be treated thus when considering my petition. The second part is most pertinent and relevant to the current major issues facing our sector, namely:
Eligible occupations under this type of permit are deemed to be critically important to growing Ireland’s economy, are highly demanded and highly skilled, and in significant shortage of supply in our labour market.
This statement alone is tailor-made to confirm the premise of my petition that chefs should be added to the critical skills list.
During the meeting of the Joint Committee on Tourism, Culture, Arts, Sport and Media on 25 May 2022, which was loosely entitled the "Working Conditions and Skills Shortages in Ireland’s Tourism and Hospitality Sector", representatives of the Licensed Vintners Association, LVA, and the Vintners Federation of Ireland, VFI, clearly showed the desperate dearth of hospitality staff across all disciplines and counties. Markedly, the representatives of both groups alluded specifically to the shortage of chefs as being fundamental to the re-emergence of their members' businesses.
The Chair, Deputy Niamh Smyth, from Fianna Fáil, presided engagingly on the topic and asked the hugely important question of where it was possible for the sector to get skilled staff. From the Government’s perspective, the answer comes from the expert group on future skills needed, EGFSN, established in 1997. It is tasked with advising the Government on future skills requirements and associated labour market issues that impact on the national potential for enterprise and employment growth. Its membership includes representatives from Government Departments, enterprise development agencies, businesses, unions, the further education and training sector and the Higher Education Authority, HEA. The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, in conjunction with the skills and labour market research unit, SOLAS, provides the EGFSN with research and analysis support.
Mr. Paul Clancy of the VFI suggested, quite reasonably, that an investigation of the precise scale of the problem needs to be conducted at Government level. The EGFSN is the entity to do that. On its "About Us" web page, the organisation describes what it does. I will cite those aspects relevant to my petition:
We advise Government on projected skills requirements at national and sectoral levels and make recommendations on how best to address identified needs.
We advise on any skills requirements that cannot be met internally at a given time and so must be met through inward migration.
I then read the current working list of objectives from the EFGSN's website. These are an artificial intelligence, AI, skills report; a design skills report; a zero-carbon skills report; a design skills implementation group; and work in the context of the report on Building Future Skills: Demand for Skills in Ireland’s Built Environment Sector to 2030. Hospitality sector needs are not mentioned or addressed. In the context of an industry that has such highly publicised labour difficulties, surely the EGFSN should be scrambling to acknowledge and respond to the current supply-demand catastrophe. As this is clearly not high on the Government's agenda, it falls to industry representatives like me to argue the case for at least accepting the issue exists on a national level.
To date, my engagement with the Ministers and Departments involved has been mixed. The overall mood is that the legislation is dated, tired and unfit for purpose. The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment has been responsive to our approaches at lobbying level and information on advisers and contacts has been given freely. All those to whom I have spoken have been very helpful, but they suffer under the heavy burden of unabating processing queues and complex bureaucratic inadequacies. These issues make their work and objectives unclear. They also make solving issues or errors extremely slow and hierarchical. The impression given is of a disparate system where checks and balances take undue time. This is a matter for future resolution.
The crisis we face right now asks for immediate action. The statutory instruments that can allow this change exist and are easily amended. This is the main legislative barrier I see:
In the case of a Critical Skills Employment Permit for an employment for which the minimum annual remuneration is €30,000, the qualification required in respect of that employment is a third level degree relevant to the employment concerned.
This third level degree stipulation must be removed. Some of the most influential, powerful, successful and productive members of our society, and some of those in industries, do not have third level degrees. It is an archaic measure of suitability that is standing obnoxiously in the way of the progress of my petition.
I will return to the description of the critical skills employment permit and its first line:
The Critical Skills Employment Permit is designed to attract highly skilled people into the labour market with the aim of encouraging them to take up permanent residence in the State.
I wish to reflect on the outdated precedence it indicates. The Maastricht treaty of 1992 opened the EU to freedom of movement and thereby created superb opportunities for workers to find employment in their fellow EU countries. Since 1992, the EU has transformed into a powerhouse of enterprise, industry and belief. Countries that were severely impacted by exceptionally poor labour market options are now thriving economies with enthused and proud young people, who often return from their time abroad and choose to remain in their native lands to set up businesses and raise their families. The will "to take up permanent residency in the [foster] State" is not as prevalent as it once was.
As a result it is not necessary for the critical skills employment permit to be framed in this way. Of course, housing is needed while workers are here and this will be a real issue. WeHaveChefs.com has noted from our coalface experience that accommodation is available throughout the country. It is just a matter of the hotels, restaurants, bars, chefs and ourselves as recruiters uniting in the search to find our incoming employees suitable lodging while they are here.
Our chefs for the most part are not economic migrants in the disheartened sense of the phrase. Instead they are highly skilled, highly versatile, well-travelled, globally wise go-getters who seize at a good opportunity when it arises. They know their skill set is in demand worldwide and they choose Ireland because our reputation for welcome and diversity is well known. They do not necessarily intend to stay forever. They are exploring the world and applying their passionate career choice to the nation in which they find themselves.
Under the general skills employment permit checklist, businesses seeking staff from outside the EU must complete a labour market needs test for each and every position they want to fill. For chefs this requires a EURES advertisement that must run for 28 days before the application can be submitted, an advertisement for the job in a national newspaper for three consecutive days and an advertisement for the job in a local newspaper or a copy of the advertisement on a jobs website, other than the EURES website, for three days.
The problem here is threefold. The expense of posting these advertisements is substantial, there is a delay of 28 days before an outside-of-EU permit may be submitted, and, most damningly; no-one responds to these advertisements. For example, WeHaveChefs.com placed 27 EURES advertisements over 28 days with 45 positions available in top-class hotels and restaurants throughout the country and we received two CVs, neither of which was anywhere near suitable for the position advertised.
The labour market needs test is obsolete as there do not seem to be chefs in the EU who want to come to work in Ireland. I do not think this is a poor reflection on Ireland's living and working conditions but instead describes the growth and development across the bloc that keeps native chefs in their domestic markets. The other element is that the hospitality sector is primarily and ideally manned by locals or at least nationals. These are people who take pride in their country's hospitality offering and often, like myself, they have only one language. Therefore, the transferability of their skill sets as chefs is hampered by their inability to communicate in a foreign tongue. The culinary sectors throughout Europe cater largely for their own domestic markets.
On the contrary, the chefs we bring from east Asia more often than not have worked in international hotels where English is commonly used as the mean language. They are well-equipped, ready and prepared to travel to use their skills overseas. Their intention is not to take up permanent residency but to explore the world of culinary variety. We do not need to worry where they will live so much; we simply need to welcome them into our country and our communities and help them find accommodation suited to their location. Where there is a will, there is a way. I thank the committee for hearing my argument and I hope this petition is not raised in vain.