Thursday, 6 December 2018

Ceisteanna (5)

Billy Kelleher


5. Deputy Billy Kelleher asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the steps being taken to cater for the shortage of skilled labour in the agricultural sector and the competitiveness issues arising if unaddressed. [51188/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (6 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Agriculture)

What are the steps being taken to deal with the skills shortage in the agricultural sector? What competitiveness issues might arise from these shortages, not just in the context of farms but in the context of the entire process, including final sale?

I am acutely aware of the shortage of labour that exists in some parts of the agrifood sector, and in the economy generally. It should be noted that the sector accounts for 7.9% of total employment, or approximately 174,000 jobs. As most of these jobs are based outside of our cities, they are crucial to the rural economy.

Food Wise 2025 highlighted the need for the attraction, retention and development of skills and talent right along the food supply chain. Investment in people is crucial for the success of Food Wise 2025 and the success of the sector as a whole. The human capital recommendations contained in the strategy are more relevant than ever, as we see skills and labour shortages developing. My Department has hosted two Food Wise 2025 skills workshops, involving all relevant stakeholders, to look at skills gaps and needs both at farm and at food and beverage industry levels. This process of stakeholder engagement has led to two important reports, namely, the report on future skills needs in the food and drink sector, published last year, and the people in dairy action plan, which I launched in June of this year. This incorporates a total of 29 specific actions which are organised into six key initiatives. The specific recommendations in both reports are in the process of being implemented and progress will be reported periodically to the Food Wise high-level implementation committee, which I chair.

Labour supply issues have been most acute in meat processing and on farm in the horticulture and dairy sectors, although I am aware that some other parts of the industry, including pig, poultry and egg production, are also beginning to face the same issue. While some potential exists to recruit labour from within the domestic and European labour markets, it has become apparent in recent times that this will be insufficient to meet the demand and, therefore, I and my officials have had extensive engagement with the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Heather Humphreys, and her Department in relation to employment permits for non-European Economic Area nationals.

I welcomed the announcement by the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, of an initial pilot quota of employment permits for the horticulture, dairy and meat processing sectors in May, with a further allocation for meat processing in August. While the number of permits allocated is relatively modest, at 500 for horticulture workers, 50 for dairy farm assistants and 750 for meat processor operatives, it is addressing the immediate shortage of labour. Alongside the dedicated pilot scheme for the agrifood sector, an overarching review of the broader employment permit system has been carried out by the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation. My colleague the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, published the report on this review in September and my Department, having actively participated in the review, is now on an interdepartmental group tasked with implementing the recommendations. I am confident that this exercise will lead to a permit regime that is more flexible and adaptable to the labour needs of the agrifood sector, particularly for seasonal employment.

I said at the time of the announcement of these permits that they were just one piece of the jigsaw in addressing labour supply and that the sector must also continue and intensify its efforts to source and retain labour from both the domestic and EU markets.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

In this regard, my officials have been working closely with the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection to assist in these efforts. That Department has hosted a series of information sessions and meetings with representatives from across the agrifood sector on the range of initiatives and supports available. It is clear, however, that there is no quick fix to address these issues. Instead, we must take a multifaceted approach and my Department will continue to progress initiatives in this regard.

We have to monitor the situation continually. Some time ago the chief executive of Dairygold, Mr. Wolfe, said that labour shortages were a constraint on expansion for 25% of the company's clients and suppliers. It is a gripping issue that has to be addressed. The Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation has five people looking at skills issues across the whole economy. I do not believe we have taken the issue as seriously as we should have. We need to think about skills shortages before they happen because currently we get skills shortages and then react to them. We need to shorten the time between a shortage arising and when we address it, such as by issuing work permits. I ask the Minister to ensure that the Department is more proactive in responding to the views of industry and advocates for the agricultural sector.

I appreciate the Deputy's concerns. My Department is now involved in a working group with the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation and we will be proactive in trying to find a resolution to the issue. It is one of the downsides of an economy that is nearing full employment and I am acutely conscious of how it impacts on the agrifood sector, both inside and outside the farm gate. We will remain focused on it. We have had an initial response in the area of work permits but more needs to be done, both in terms of permitted workers and in the context of labour opportunities in Ireland's existing workforce.

The pay rates in the agricultural and processing sectors are on the lower end of the scale and any change in 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. When the Minister talks to the industry in general that is a key point that he should make. 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.

The Deputy's point is very well reflected in the report 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. There is a lot going on in that area but it is not just the dairy industry and pay is but one element of that.