Tuesday, 12 October 2021
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
I thank the Minister of State for taking this matter. The reality is that the economy is starting to recover, probably at a more rapid rate than was expected. That is very welcome but one of the biggest challenges we face, if not the biggest, is the shortage of skilled labour. We are hearing that from employers right across the sector. We are very familiar with the shortage of skilled labour in the tourism and hospitality sector, which we debated in this House. We are hearing about it in haulage, from companies in the agrifood sector, in manufacturing, medical employment, and in the technology spaces where a lot of high-end jobs remain unfilled because we do not have skilled workers. We are certainly hearing about it in construction, where we need significant numbers of additional skilled workers if we are going to achieve the plans we have laid out in Housing for All.
While it is very welcome that the Government is investing heavily in our higher and further education and training programmes, and we have seen all the new apprenticeship models, it is going to take a period before we have enough skilled personnel here in Ireland. It is absolutely essential that non-EEA workers are able to come here to work, that that process be as smooth as possible and that the delays will be minimal. The problem, as the Minister of State knows, is that there are very long delays, even for trusted partners or IDA Ireland companies. My understanding is that, as of today, the Department is only now processing applications from trusted partners that were made on 15 July and standard applications that were made on 29 June. If a company makes an application in order to get a work permit for somebody to come here to fill a vacant post, it is waiting three months.
If we are to come out of this very difficult period we continue to experience, we need a strong and robust economy. This is a country whose economy is very much based on skilled labour, and we recognises the importance of such labour. Quite frankly, however, the work permit and visa system is not fit for purpose.It is neither fit for those seeking employment in all the sectors we have talked about nor for employers. It is probably the biggest barrier to our economy growing as quickly as we need it to over the next period.
I know other colleagues in this House have asked about this and it is something that is regularly raised by employer representative organisations but we need to streamline the visa and work permit system and we also need to ensure we are not seeing three or four-month waiting lists before processing even starts on any of these. Government Ministers will be coming into this House next year telling us that houses are not being built because we do not have the necessary construction workers. We will still see the problems in tourism and hospitality and the jobs in the tech sector and our hospitals cannot be filled. The primary reason that is so is because of an inadequate work permit and visa system.
I am taking this matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy English, who sends his apologies. I thank the Senator for raising this matter, which is pertinent and timely. Policy responsibility for the granting of visa permissions is a matter for my colleague, the Minister for Justice. The employment permits system is designed to facilitate the entry of appropriately skilled non-EEA nationals to fill skills and labour shortages, or both, in the short to medium term, in circumstances where there are no suitably qualified Irish or EEA nationals available to undertake the work and where the shortage is a genuine one.
The system is managed through the operation of the critical skills occupations list and the ineligible occupations list. These are subject to twice-yearly evidence-based reviews in consultation with other Departments, sectoral representatives and the economic migration interdepartmental group. Where shortages are clearly evidenced, the employment permit system is flexible enough to address them in real time. The current review will close by the end of October with a final report setting out recommendations for approval.
The employment permits (consolidation and amendment) Bill consolidates the existing legislation to provide a more accessible statutory basis for our economic migration system. Specific changes include the introduction of a seasonal employment permit, modernising the labour market needs test, moving operational criteria to regulations to increase responsiveness, and streamlining requirements to make the grant process more efficient. The draft Bill is almost finalised and we await the report of the Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment before bringing a memorandum to Government to seek approval to publish.
Recently, as the Senator has alluded to, processing times have been impacted by a significant increase in demand and by the HSE cyberattack. These factors resulted in a significant additional administrative burden in dealing with applications associated with the July doctors' rotation which were submitted either manually or by other non-standard methods. It is also worth noting that there was a 41% increase in the number of permits issued to the end of September when compared with the same period last year. It is important to point out that when set against other international employment permit regimes, Ireland continues to compare extremely favourably. However, my Department is conscious of the recent lengthening of timeframes for processing applications and is taking a range of measures to clear the backlog as quickly as possible. This includes the redevelopment of the current employment permits IT system, which should drive further efficiencies in processing and result in increased productivity. My Department advises employers to take current timelines into account as part of their recruitment plans.
I smile when the Minister of State mentions that the number of applications for work permits in September 2021 represented a 41% increase on September 2020, given that people were not allowed to travel and that we were in the middle of some of the big Covid challenges. I am disappointed, although I appreciate that the Minister of State is answering on behalf of his colleague.The name of the Minister of State's Department is the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. If we want to support enterprise then where job vacancies exist we must ensure they are filled. It is not good enough that we have not seen as much progress as we should have. While I would be grateful to get a timeline on the employment permits Bill, I also seek an assurance that in six months' time, we will not be experiencing these difficulties because if we continue to do so, I predict that sectors of the economy will grind to a halt.
I, too, share the Senator's frustrations. My constituency office is just as much contacted, maybe more so given that I am a Minister of State in the Department, by industries that seek to have permits processed as a matter of urgency.
As I have said, measures have been undertaken by my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy English, to improve efficiency in the processing time of permits through the Department. It would be wrong of me not to acknowledge that there has been a delay and I encourage people to take account of the delay when advertising positions. I urge people to link in with the almost 10% of people who are unemployed, because they are ready, willing and able to take on job opportunities. In my own constituency, the Department of Social Protection has been linked with local companies and has matched good quality staff with the demands and needs of companies. I encourage other people to do likewise.
The new Bill in this area is currently with the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment. When the committee finalises its report it intends to bring a memorandum to Government for approval and then to enact the Bill thereafter. I can assure the Senator that there is no desire on the part of my Department to delay that and once the Oireachtas committee publishes its report, we will move at pace to have the Bill enacted.