Seanad debates

Tuesday, 5 October 2021

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Work Permits

2:30 pm

Photo of Fiona O'LoughlinFiona O'Loughlin (Fianna Fail)
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I am here today to speak for the owners of many small and medium sized businesses, particularly in Kildare. We all acknowledge that they have faced great adversity over the last 18 months and many of them are fighting for the survival of their businesses at present. I must acknowledge that government subsidies have been forthcoming and have stopped the financial bleeding for many businesses, and the business owners I speak to are very complimentary about the suite of financial supports that has been made available. However, the Government must now reposition its focus and support businesses to get back to financial independence.

I wish to highlight the significant staffing shortages being experienced by many businesses as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and why it is imperative that visas are issued in a far swifter manner for workers to step into the breach, particularly those who have skills in the hospitality sector and in food production. I refer to one food production company that contacted me. The company needs 100 skilled workers at the very minimum. It cannot source them in Ireland and has tried to source them throughout Europe. It needs 100 people. It is turning away business at present and is finding it extremely difficult to meet the orders it has accepted. It submitted visa applications and has been told that it is three to four months behind. The Department is currently only dealing with applications that were made in late June and early July. This is detrimental to the company. Another business I wish to mention is a four-star hotel, a fine hotel at the heart of my constituency. Again, it has been advertising for chefs and for others who are experienced in hospitality, but the quality and volume of staff required are simply not available.

It is not an isolated issue, as I am hearing this from many businesses. They were lucky to employ skilled and capable employees who happen not to be Irish citizens and who had been residing in Ireland solely for the employment opportunities it has to offer. However, when the pandemic started many of them chose to return to their home countries. Now there is a dearth of people who are able to take up specific employment positions. The Tánaiste and the Minister of State's Department have ultimate responsibility for ensuring that we have a robust workforce that is fit for purpose. The Tánaiste and the Minister of State must do more to support businesses to stand on their own two feet. If businesses cannot access the skilled labour they need to run their businesses effectively, they will never be able to return to the level of their pre-Covid operations. They are also very concerned about the staff who are working in their businesses at present and who are taking on extra shifts and so forth, because they want to ensure that everybody is working in a good employment situation.

Visas are a particular issue, with many potential workers struggling to gain access to the employment market. The Department must fulfil its brief and there must be a very strategic intervention. Obviously, the Department must have additional staff to accelerate the permit process. This is a major issue not just for the people I represent in Kildare but throughout the country. I hope the Minister of State will take on board the message I am strongly giving to him and intervene in an appropriate way.

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath West, Fine Gael)
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I thank Senator O'Loughlin for raising this issue, which is something we have discussed quite a lot in recent weeks, mainly in this House. It has been raised with me quite regularly by the business community and the representative bodies we engage with in the various sectors. We have spent a great deal of time over the last couple of months engaging with various sectors and businesses that have highlighted this shortage of staff as a major issue and which are finding it very difficult to access the skilled staff they need, and in some cases the unskilled staff they need, in many sectors. The Senator highlighted two today, hospitality and food production. That matches up with the data coming through to us as well.

We have engaged with the various sectors. Part of the difficulty is that this year there have been more than 17,000 applications for permits since the start of the year.Over 11,000 applications have been granted so we are clear that we are moving through a lot of applications. A backlog has developed in recent months, mainly due to the demand for medical permits, which had to be prioritised. The process involving medical permits became a lot more difficult after the HSE cyberattack so we have had to process a lot of them manually and some were applied for manually as well. We have increased staff resources and made changes in our Department to try to cater for the demand for permits and make decisions on applications a lot more speedily. We are not in charge of the visas; we just have responsibility for the work permits. The Department understands how important these work permits are for many sectors and we will try to engage with them on that.

A review is under way which is looking at the various sectors that might need changes to the permit system. We have had 29 submissions to that review, including from the sectors the Senator has referenced, such as food production and hospitality, and many others. We are working through those submissions and hopefully we can make any changes that are needed in the month of October. That usually happens in November but we are going to try to do it in October of this year if possible to try to cater for that.

The Senator is right that some sectors have gone to great lengths to source staff in Ireland and in Europe and I have met some of the representatives of those sectors. We grant permits outside of the EU and we would ask any sector or company that is making applications for permits or looking for changes to the permit lists to make every effort they can to source labour locally if they can and to engage with Pathways to Work and our Intreo offices, which provide great supports to take people off the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, and social welfare. Both businesses and people are supported as they go back to work so I ask businesses to engage with that service. In the short and long term, businesses need to engage with our education system, including the higher education sector and the further education and training sector, to develop these skills locally if it all possible, rather than having to go down the route of work permits. It is difficult to explain that there are 100,000 people on the PUP and another 100,000 plus on social welfare and yet thousands of these jobs are also available. It is hard to address the need for work permits in certain sectors that do not have a need for high-skilled labour in that context. We will try to accommodate it as best we possibly can.

The Senator mentioned the food sector and although I was not in the Department at the time, in 2018 it made changes to the scheme to try to cater for that. A pilot quota-based scheme was introduced which issued 2,500 general employment permits for the meat processing industry, 500 permits for horticulture and 150 permits for the dairy sector. That quota has been used up so the ask is that it would be increased, as well as making other changes to the list. We are doing all that work at present and hopefully we will be able to provide an update before the end of October.

Photo of Fiona O'LoughlinFiona O'Loughlin (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State. I have confidence that he recognises the extent of the problem and I recognise that some measures have been put in place. Any of the companies that I had contact with tried Pathways to Work, but it just did not work for various reasons. They took on people and those people left. We have to recognise the reality of what is there. Maybe we can have a separate debate on Pathways to Work on another day.

We need to have the quota system opened again and the Minister of State has indicated that this could be done. On the 3,000 permits that have not yet been processed and that the Minister of State mentioned, that is where the crisis and the crux of the matter is. The Department must do whatever it can and I acknowledge that there is a difference between the work permits and the visa applications but the Minister of State was sent to deal with this matter and one goes hand in hand with the other. We must think about what these businesses have gone through over the last 18 months, particularly the hospitality industry, which cannot get chefs for love nor money. That industry wants to have a successful number of months in the rest of 2021 and into 2022 and it will not be able to do so if this is not solved.

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath West, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senator again for raising the issue. I totally understand the difficulties that are out there because I have engaged with the sectors quite a lot. When I said we were prioritising medical staff I meant to point out that we prioritised permits for chefs as well because we understood that the sector was under an awful lot of pressure and that it was an essential service providing food during the Covid emergency. We tried to fast-track and expedite permits for chefs wherever we could.Likewise, other sectors have come forward recently making strong cases to have their applications dealt with in a timely manner. Regular users of the permit system have a much quicker timeline for processing. As I said, 1,784 applications were made this year, which is a 41% increase compared to last year. The Senator will appreciate that meant there would be some delays. We tried to address that through overtime and staffing. On top of that, we had to deal with medical permit applications, which are generally submitted in May, June and July. Many of those permits had to be processed manually, which caused great difficulty.

However, our teams have been responding both in dealing with the permits in the system and in reviewing the lists under which people are allowed to apply for permits. The hospitality sector and many other sectors, including the transport sector which is a significant one, are included on the lists. We will deal with those in the coming weeks. I will continue to engage with all those companies and sectors. We have to address the skills shortage in many other ways in the long term, rather than simply a reliance on the employment permits system. I am committed to doing that. The various Departments will join forces to address that, if this can be done, in the long term. The employment permits system is often a way to solve the problem in the short term as well as bringing in some new talent to the country.

Sitting suspended at 3.22 p.m. and resumed at 3.30 p.m.