Seanad debates

Thursday, 4 November 2021

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Work Permits

10:30 am

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy O’Donovan, to the House.

Photo of Robbie GallagherRobbie Gallagher (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State for taking time to attend this morning. It is much appreciated. I also thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach for selecting this matter. I know he understands the importance of this particular issue to the constituency in which he and I live.

Last week, the Government relaxed the rules on working permits for individuals from outside of the European Economic Area, EEA. This will have beneficial consequences for a number of sectors, including horticulture, which I raised in the House some weeks ago. Other sectors which will benefit include construction and haulage. However, the poultry sector and pig operators have been left out of the permit scheme. They are disappointed and feel they have been forgotten. They believe their sector could be in trouble because it has not been included in the scheme. Unfortunately, their best efforts to recruit workers from the resident and indigenous workforce have proved unsuccessful and they have been forced to go down the road of trying to get workers from outside the EEA.

Poultry farmers in Monaghan believe this is not a national issue because the poultry industry is located primarily in the county and that perhaps that is the reason they have been left out. County Monaghan has gained a positive global reputation in many sectors. I would be here for the rest of the day listing them for the Minister of State. One of those sectors is the poultry industry. Monaghan is, in many ways, the home of that industry. To give some facts, of the 413 poultry meat sites in the country, 240 are located in County Monaghan and 184 of the 186 egg production sites in the country are also located in the county. Farmers in Monaghan tell us that it is not only minimum wage jobs they are seeking to fill and that they need a specialised workforce. Unfortunately, they cannot recruit this workforce locally and are forced to go down this road.

It is worth noting in the week that is in it, with COP26 and the Government’s announcement today of the carbon action plan, that the poultry industry has the lowest carbon footprint of any meat sector. As such, it has serious potential for growth, not just in County Monaghan but throughout the country. I am giving a voice to the poultry farmers of Monaghan and I hope their plea, which I am making on their behalf today, will be advanced by the Department and the sector will get the work permits it needs to ensure business continues and the sector achieves further growth. I look forward to the Minister of State’s response.

Photo of Patrick O'DonovanPatrick O'Donovan (Limerick County, Fine Gael)
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I apologise for my colleague, the Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy English, who is unfortunately unable to attend the Seanad this morning. He asked me to reply on his behalf and indicated he will facilitate a discussion with the Senator to go through the issues he has raised. He also thanks the Senator for having raising them in the House.

The employment permits system is designed to facilitate the entry of appropriately skilled non-European Economic Area nationals to fill skills and-or labour shortages in the short to medium term in circumstances where there are no suitably qualified Irish or EEA nationals available to undertake the work and that 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 most recent review concluded with the announcement by the Minister of State, Deputy English, on 27 October, of a broad suite of amendments to the occupations lists to address the skills and labour shortages of most immediate concern across a number of key economic sectors, including the agricultural sector.

The agrifood sector shows evidence of significant challenges, most notably in meat processing and horticulture, and is continuing to experience unprecedented labour challenges due to the pandemic, in spite of initiatives to attract and retain staff. The number of unfilled vacancies continues to increase with an attendant risk to supply chains and harvests. The Government has responded to address these immediate needs with additional permit quotas for horticulture operatives, meat deboners, meat processing operatives and dairy farm operatives. Ireland is an outlier in Europe in not having a seasonal employment permit. While legislation proceeds to rectify this, these new quotas will assist in the sector.

While mindful of the labour shortages in the agrifood sector but also the continued uncertainty in the labour market, consideration was given to the poultry sector. Changes to the labour market as the economy continues to reopen will help the poultry sector. However, changes specific to the sector for roles such as poultry catcher were not recommended for change at this time. The sector needs to provide more evidence of recruitment efforts undertaken within the EEA through structured engagement with the Department of Social Protection.

As I said, the Minister of State, Deputy English, will be available to discuss the matter further with the Senator. I apologise for the short notice given for his inability to attend. I will bring to the Minister of State's attention any matters the Senator wishes me to raise with him. I fully understand the position of the poultry industry. While County Monaghan is probably the largest producer of poultry, counties Mayo, Waterford and my home county of Limerick are also significant producers of poultry.

Photo of Robbie GallagherRobbie Gallagher (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State for his response. While he is here, I would like to acknowledge the help I have received from officials in his Department. I ask him to pass on my sincere thanks to them.

On the poultry sector, I see some light in the Minister of State's response in that it is now over to the poultry sector to provide the evidence the Department requires showing that it has tried to recruit locally. As I said, that road has been travelled without success. I will, however, communicate with the sector on again producing the evidence of having travelled that road. When that evidence is submitted, as I have no doubt it will be, the Department may then see fit to issue the number of permits the sector requires. The poultry sector is of great importance to County Monaghan and we cannot allow anything to interfere with its continued growth.

Photo of Patrick O'DonovanPatrick O'Donovan (Limerick County, Fine Gael)
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The Government’s policy is that employment opportunities which arise in the country should, in the first instance, be offered to suitably skilled Irish nationals and then to EEA nationals, and should only be offered to non-EEA nationals where no suitable candidate emerges from within the EEA to fill the vacancy. The last sentence of my initial contribution is the most important in that the sector needs to provide more evidence of recruitment efforts undertaken and to show engagement with the Department of Social Protection.

This issue arises in other sectors and the Minister of State, Deputy English, has indicated that he is not averse to discussion or negotiations. The Government has shown flexibility with other sectors. We note that the horticultural and agrifood sectors are having particular problems. The Minister of State, Deputy English, represents a rural constituency and is a pragmatic individual. I will bring this matter to his attention and I hope that, in conjunction with Senator Gallagher and farming representatives, a resolution to this matter will be found.