I am acutely aware of the shortage of labour that exists in some parts of the agri-food sector. 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 & beverage industry levels. This process of stakeholder engagement has led to two important reports:
- 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 are also beginning to face the same issue. While some potential exists to recruit labour from within the domestic and European labour markets, it became 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 Heather Humphreys and her Department in relation to employment permits for non-European Economic Area nationals.
I welcomed the announcement by Minister 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 (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 agri-food sector, an overarching review of the broader employment permit system has been carried out by the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation. My colleague Minister Humphreys published the report on this review in September and my Department, having actively participated in the review, is now on an inter-departmental 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 agri-food 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 labour from both the domestic and EU markets. In this regard, my officials have been working closely with the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection (DEASP) to assist in these efforts. That Department has hosted a series of information sessions and meetings with representatives from across the agri-food sector on the range of initiatives and supports available.
It is clear that there is no ‘quick-fix’ to address these issues. Instead, we must take a multi-faceted approach and my Department will continue to progress initiatives in this regard.