Wednesday, 15 September 2021
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
61. To ask the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment the extent to which he and his Department can facilitate the urgent staff requirements in the construction, catering, food processing and tourism sectors; if a means can be found to accelerate the procedures thus eliminating long delays in the processing of applications for work permits; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [43621/21]
This question seeks to focus on the difficulties experienced by many enterprises in replacing staff who need to be replaced following the lifting of the regulations. Might it be possible to speed up the processing of work permits and visas relating to their particular situation, because many of them have to go outside the jurisdiction?
I thank the Deputy for raising this question. This is a common theme that we have dealt with over the last couple of months. We have engaged with many sectors that are having difficulty filling job vacancies. As the Deputy mentioned, food processing is one of those. I have engaged with these sectors and they clearly show me where they are missing out on opportunities to expand and grow. They cannot reach their customers. It is an issue in many sectors.
To be clear, the policy responsibility for each of the individual sectors that the Deputy mentioned, such as construction, food processing, catering and tourism are a matter of each Department. They will feed into this conversation in our Department around the rules around employer permits, and so on.
This is, therefore, something I am aware of. We are trying to engage and find solutions to that. Two of these relate to the employment permits system, which is designed to facilitate the entry of appropriately skilled non-EEA nationals to fill skills and-or labour shortages in circumstances where there are no suitably qualified Irish or EEA nationals available to undertake the work and that shortage is a genuine one. The system is managed through the operation of the critical skills and the ineligible occupations lists, which are subject to twice yearly evidence-based reviews.
A review of the occupation list is currently under way, with submissions received from the sectors Deputy Durkan mentioned, namely, the construction, hospitality and agrifood sectors. All submissions are under active consideration and it is envisaged that the review will be finalised in the early autumn. Normally, the work of that review would be completed and published by November. The commitment I have given to the various sectors is that we will try to have that work completed for October. We are under pressure to do that, but we will try to do it and have it out for early October.
In addition, applications for employment permits have seen a significant increase over the course of the year. As of the end of August, 14,600 applications had been received, representing a 35% increase over the same period in 2020, which was expected because there is much more movement of people this year.
The processing times have been impacted negatively and the waiting time at the moment-----
I thank the Minister of State for his detailed reply. Arising from the information, I appreciate that he understands the situation. Is it possible to speed up all the areas where particular obstacles have arisen? I know some of these things take time. Having regard to the losses suffered by employers and employees during the pandemic restrictions, it would be beneficial in the run-up to the Christmas season to get that established as quickly as possible in order that the businesses that are now trying to place people in employment would be facilitated in every way possible.
The current waiting time is about 11 weeks for trusted partners, people with regular engagement permits, and 17 weeks for those who are not, which is extremely long. Waiting times were considerably less than that up to a couple of months ago. It is still better than most countries we compete with. Along with the Tánaiste, I met the Secretary General and officials from the section to discuss having additional staff resources to process those applications. Those staff are now working extremely hard and taking on overtime and doing everything they can to try to get these permits dealt with. We will reduce the waiting time quite quickly.
July is the usual rotation time for many doctors in the system. The cyberattack on the HSE greatly complicated the process of application for permits for health staff. As the Deputy will understand, owing to the Covid pandemic, we needed to focus on permits for health staff. That took up considerable resources but we are also dealing with this.
There have been 26 submissions to the review of those who qualify for a permit or do not. The sector the Deputy mentioned has made submissions. We are working through them and we are engaging across each Department to see how we can adjust those lists. I ask for the Deputy's assistance in this regard. It is a complicated situation for us. Many companies have approached me seeking to bring labour in.
I understand the procedures but I had understood there is an allocation to discuss the overall topic and I am trying to get the full answer in. The difficulty we have is that many employers are now contacting us looking for permits. They are asking us to go beyond the European labour market to find resources. That is a difficult piece to address when more than 100,000 people are in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment and more than 100,000 people are deemed to be long-term unemployed as well.
We are trying to engage with employers and sectors to find other solutions to source labour locally through education and training, through apprenticeships, through new training involving SOLAS, further education and training and so on. We are trying everything we can but even with that there is a difficulty and we will need to issue permits to try to fill these spaces. These sectors have clearly shown to me that they are missing out on opportunities to grow their businesses, which cannot continue.