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 in rural areas, they are crucial to the rural economy.
Over the last year or so, 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 right across the agri-food sector, it became apparent in recent times that this would be insufficient to meet the demand. Therefore, I and my officials have worked intensively with the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation Heather Humphreys and her Department in relation to employment permits for non-European Economic Area nationals.
The pilot scheme of permits introduced last year by Minister Humphreys for the horticulture, dairy and meat processing sectors has been crucial in helping employers in those sectors securing labour. To date, quotas of 1,500 permits for general operatives in meat processing, 500 for horticulture workers and 50 for dairy farm assistants have been allocated. I understand that there are still permits left in the allocation for horticulture which will serve as a critical aid to securing labour in that sector.
I am aware, however, that the allocation for dairy farm workers has been exhausted and I am in active engagement with Minister Humphreys with a view to extending this quota. In relation to the pig and poultry farm sectors, I and my officials have engaged with representatives and employers in relation to the preparation of a business case that is required before consideration can be given by Minister Humphreys to sanctioning permits for these sectors. This engagement is ongoing.
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. Minister Humphreys published the report on this review last year and my Department, having actively participated in the review, is now participating in the inter-departmental group 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, and expect to see positive developments in the period ahead.
I have always said that permits are just one piece of the jigsaw in addressing labour supply and that the sector must also 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 to assist in these efforts and ensure that employers in need of labour are aware and make use of the many employment services which that Department offers.