Staff shortages and rising costs squeeze Irish pig farmers

Brexit led to 47% drop in exports to UK while many immigrants say they are overworked

The breakfast roll is a staple of deli counters. Behind it, though, lies an Irish pig industry in crisis. Rising feed costs, meat factory labour shortages and fluctuating export markets have created a perfect storm for the State’s 290 commercial pig farmers.

Feed bills for the average 800-sow herd will cost €150,000-€170,000 for the first half of the year; while feed merchants are unwilling to stretch credit facilities for such farmers with future prices so uncertain.

Brexit led to a 47 per cent drop in the volume of Irish pig and bacon exports to the UK. While China remains the biggest global importer of pig meat, its domestic supply has almost fully recovered following an outbreak of African Swine Fever and a cull of 40 million pigs in 2020.

None of these issues are reflected in basic ingredients found in the average breakfast roll, or Sunday fry. Denny’s Gold label eight-pack of sausages costs just €1.99 for a 227g pack, with pig farmers getting €1.40 per kilo, with estimates that they need €1.85 per kilo to break even.

Meanwhile, many of the rashers available may not be Irish, since almost half of the pork back cuts that are needed to meet domestic demand for rashers are imported.

Welfare concerns

Ireland’s pig farmers are among the few in agriculture who operate without Government subsidies, relying, instead, on economies of scale with intensive, indoor pig units supplying 99 per cent of the 336,000 tonnes of Irish pork produced annually.

Each of the 160,000 sows in the country is expected to produce on average 28 piglets a year. The system has drawn criticism from animal welfare activists who warn about the treatment of pigs, while environmentalists worry about the pollution consequences.

Pigs are known to be intelligent creatures but a lack of stimulation available to them when they are housed in crowded conditions can lead to stress and aggression. Tail docking – where a tail is cut off, or back – is done as a pre-emptive measure to avoid pigs injuring each other.

A European Council directive outlawed routine tail docking 20 years ago but Bord Bia stipulations allow the practice of teeth clipping and tail docking on piglets under one week of age. In contrast, the UK's equivalent Red Tractor farm certification body has completely banned both practices.

“You’d have to increase the space for pigs and stocking density in sheds to make sure you avoided tail biting,” one vet, who did not wish to be named, told The Irish Times.

“Increasing the size of sheds would cost money and the consumer would have to see an increase in price. That isn’t happening, if anything prices are going the other way.”

Farmers complain about below-cost selling and being undercut by imports, but Aldi Ireland's Group Buying Director John Curtin says that all of their fresh pork sold in stores was 100 per cent Bord Bia Quality Assured Irish meat.

A statement from Lidl also said that fresh pork from its Glensallagh range was 100 per cent Irish and Bord Bia Quality approved. However, Tesco did not respond to the same query at the time of going to print.

On top of price issues, staff shortages in meat factories have created a backlog of pigs on farms waiting to be slaughtered, with Rosderra Meats, one of the country’s largest processors, needing 150 workers.

In an industry where only 20 per cent of the workforce is Irish, the ability to attract and retain staff from overseas willing to work killing lines, boning halls and packing areas of meat factories has been an issue.

Staffing is also an issue in the UK, where since last October more than 30,000 healthy pigs had to be euthanised on farms instead of entering the food chain due to staff shortages.

“We aren’t at the stage of needing to euthanise pigs yet but we are bursting at the seams,” says Kerry pig farmer Shane McAuliffe.

Pigs have to be killed at a certain age, weight and size to meet market specifications or farmers risk being penalised in the price they receive.

Conditions

If the staffing issue is to be addressed then the industry needs to seriously review its work and pay conditions, says Bill Abom, deputy director of the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland (MRCI). "Every worker who has come to us in the last year has told us they're being overworked. They'll tell us that when they arrived at the factory two people were doing a job whereas only one person is doing it now and expected to do it at the same pace," he says.

Some 500 butcher and 1,500 general operative permits for workers outside the EU were issued by the Department of Trade to the meat industry last October, with a minimum salary of €27,500 and €22,000 respectively, along with accommodation and language training.

The UK also issued permits for 800 butchers late last year but take-up has been slow with workers in many European workers preferring to stay closer to home as industries such as construction pick up on the Continent. Some Irish meat factories have had to go as far as China to source workers according to information released by the Department of Trade.

However, director of Meat Industry Ireland Cormac Healy said labour is not the central issue currently, "although it is leading to some limitation of processing capacity", and the delay in issuing work permits is a problem.

“With current processing times for new permit applications, it is not expected to result in candidates being able to take up positions until the second quarter of this year,” he says.

However, Abom of MRCI says the permit system is creating an impossible situation for people.

“Worker permits are tied to one employer so workers can’t just leave a job easily if they are unhappy,” Abom explains.

“It creates a captive audience and the employers knows this. I feel they’re burning people out and the work pace means they either get injured or leave.

“Even if people come in as butchers and get the higher rate of €13.50/hour by the time they reach their 40s their bodies are often spent from the heavy lifting and chopping all day.”

A 2021 report into the Irish meat industry from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions showed that wage costs in Ireland are the third lowest in Europe, standing at just €33,800 per employee compared with Denmark, where the average is €60,400.

Besides staffing issues, pig farmers are also concerned about rising feed prices. Six million tonnes of grain are imported for animal feed every year, leaving the State vulnerable to fluctuating feed and market costs, while Russia’s recent ban on ammonium nitrate exports expected to add further problems.

Pig farmers elsewhere are suffering, too, with both the French and Polish governments announcing aid packages. All eyes now are on Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue to come forward with his version of the same.

However, pig farmers are concerned European Commission de minimis rules will see payments limited to just €20,000 per head. With pig farmers seeking bank credits to pay bills, one industry insider said: "It leaves the farmers who most need the money unable to get it."