Special worker permits to be issued for people outside EEA in agri-food sector

Scheme aims to address labour shortages in horticulture, meat processing and dairying

An expanded worker permit system offers hope that acute labour shortages in Irish agri-food businesses will ease, according to employers in the sector.

Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation Heather Humphreys has announced a scheme to address labour shortages in horticulture, meat processing and dairying.

A total of 800 work permits are to be issued on a pilot basis for workers outside the European Economic Area, following changes to Employment Permit Regulations.

“As we approach full employment, labour shortages at the lower-skilled end of the jobs market are becoming apparent in some sectors,” Ms Humphreys said. “This has the potential to constrict growth if these needs are not met.”


The permits regime is focused on critical skills gaps at the higher end of the labour market "as we position Ireland for further growth in the knowledge economy", Ms Humphreys said. "Like many developed countries, however, we are now seeing pressures at the lower-skilled end of the market."

A new minimum remuneration threshold of €22,000 is being introduced for these occupations. There will be specific obligations on employers around the welfare and prospects of employed foreign nationals. This includes having access to suitable accommodation and to training in areas such as language skills.

Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed is to publish a separate report on labour needs on dairy farms in coming weeks.


Earlier this year, Ms Humphreys asked her department to review economic migration policies underpinning the current permits system to ensure they were fully supportive of emerging labour market needs, “be they critical skills needs or labour shortages for lower-skilled, lower-waged workers”. It is due to report in June.

Gerry Reilly, who runs a large mushroom farm employing 50 people outside Athlone, Co Westmeath, said he was very pleased with the new permit scheme because the horticulture sector was struggling as "less and less people want to do this kind of work".

Mr Reilly said he used to get workers from Latvia and Lithuania but people across Europe had become less willing to undertake manual labour. This was indicated by unwillingness to work unsociable hours, he said.

“I’m getting to the stage where I don’t want to expand because I don’t know whether I will get labour or not,” he added.

Getting workers and keeping them were two different issues, Mr Reilly said. How employers treated people, ensured worker safety and good living conditions were vital to retaining staff.

Jimmy Kearns of Kearns Fruit Farm outside Enniscorthy, Co Wexford, said people wanted to work in a clean environment with flexible hours compared with sometimes dirty, outdoor work on farms.

Many Polish workers he had employed had gone on to better jobs, which he was pleased about. He currently employs Poles, Romanians, Bulgarians “and a few Irish” – 35 people; a figure that will rise to 80 in coming months.

“They are making good money; up to €15 an hour when picking strawberries, considerably above the minimum wage,” he added. They might have to work on a Saturday to get an order out. At other times, such as high summer, he could not have people taking holidays.

Expanding sectors

He said labour shortages were in all agri-food sectors, which currently employ about 173,000 people, generating exports worth almost €13.5 billion. “We are sourcing labour from anywhere we can get it.”

Earlier this year he brought in 15 people, and purchased a house to ensure they had good living accommodation, he confirmed.

Irish Farmers' Association president Joe Healy said: "Irish agriculture, especially labour-intensive and/or expanding sectors such as horticulture, dairy and pigs, has a genuine need of additional labour from outside Europe as we approach full employment and recovering EU economies have labour needs of their own."

He said an operational review of the pilot project was needed, so the scheme could be assessed against each of the three agricultural sectors’ needs, and then amended if necessary and extended as required.

“I am glad to read that where sectors put in place strategies to source and retain labour from the domestic and European labour markets, and where they invest in innovative technologies, as the sectors have done, the minister would be open to granting additional permit quotas,” he added.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times