The meat processing industry will continue to need workers from abroad in the years ahead, its representatives have told an Oireachtas committee.
Meat Industry Ireland said without the system to bring in employees from outside the EU under the work permit schemes, "hard-won export business" would be jeopardised.
It also warned that a transition to automation in the sector was “not on the immediate horizon”.
Meat Industry Ireland and the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland are scheduled to appear before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment on Tuesday on proposed Government reforms to the work permit system.
The proposed reforms would allow, among other things, for the introduction of a new seasonal work permit as well as changes to the labour market needs test that applies prior to employers bringing in staff on work permits from abroad.
In its opening statement Meat Industry Ireland said Irish and EU employees represented 80 per cent of the total workforce in the meat processing sector. It said Irish staff continued to represent the single largest nationality employed.
Following a slowdown in EU migration the meat sector “reached the point in 2015 where it lacked sufficient resources to service important export markets”, it added.
Under the employment permit scheme the industry recruited skilled knifemen internationally to fill vacancies, the lobby group said.
Meat Industry Ireland said that in 2018, “domestic labour sources had dried up to the extent that vacancies for general operatives were unfillable within the EU/EEA economies, and the wider agri-food industry (meat, dairy and horticulture) secured a permit scheme for general operatives to fill vacancies”.
The group predicted that in the longer term additional sources of labour were needed above the level that labour market activation could provide.
“In this context the meat sector forecast is that international sources of labour will continue to be in demand under the two existing permit schemes available to the sector.
“The shortages that we face are unlikely to abate as we increasingly find that the sector is competing to attract the attention of a reduced pool of resident workers.
“Without the permit option to meet the labour need required in the meat sector, we would put in jeopardy hard-won export business, which is now more than ever facing global competitive challenges,” it said.
Meat Industry Ireland said where available the use of modern technology had been adopted. However, it said “primary processing is and will remain a labour-intensive operation”.
“The industry globally and here in Ireland is exploring automation options. And while a future transition to automation cannot be ruled out, it is not on the immediate horizon and would be slow in emerging and expensive to deliver, particularly for the smaller scale of plants in Ireland.”
Separately, the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland said the existing system for dealing with migrant workers “pits people against each other – it thinks an IT developer is better than a meat factory worker”.
“Right now for workers the current system limits labour market mobility. This in turn traps workers, and may well play into the hands of unscrupulous employers and exacerbates labour market precarity.”
It urged the Government in the new legislation to “give parity” to workers on employment permits by giving gradual mobility to all general employment permit-holders, similar to that already in place for critical skills permit-holders – full labour market mobility after two years and immediate rights to family reunion.