I am aware that there is a shortage of labour across parts of the agricultural sector, including on horticultural farms.
In addressing this issue, it became clear that while some potential exists to recruit labour from within the domestic and European labour markets, this is insufficient to meet the demand. Therefore, my Department has 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.
This engagement culminated in my Department submitting a detailed, evidence based case to Minister Humphreys Department earlier this year which laid out the justification for granting employment permits to three sectors – dairy farm assistants, general operatives in meat plants, and horticultural farm assistants. This resulted in the introduction in May 2018 of a pilot quota of permits by Minister Humphreys, including 500 for horticulture workers. So far, I understand that 39 of these have been issued, with around 60 applications having been received. These numbers are lower than was expected, although I understand that with the drought and the timing of the announcement, demand may have been lower than anticipated.
Alongside the dedicated pilot scheme for the agri-food sector, it is also important to point out that an overarching review of the broader employment permit system has been carried out by the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation. Minister Humphreys published the report on this review last September and my Department, having actively participated in the review, is now part of 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.