The Government's scrapping of a cap on the number of lorry drivers from outside Europe allowed to work in Ireland will do nothing to plug a huge shortage of drivers as a "nightmare" looms for the haulage industry in the run-up to Christmas, hauliers have warned.
Minister of State for Business, Employment and Retail Damien English said a fresh overhaul of the employment permits system for workers from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) will allow more haulage drivers into Ireland.
The haulage industry estimates there is currently a shortage of between 3,000 and 4,000 drivers.
More builders, hospitality managers, horticulture workers, dairy-farm assistants and meat processors are also to be allowed the work permits, as are social workers and opticians.
Mr English said he was abolishing a quota of 320 for employment permits granted to HGV drivers from outside the EEA. Some 187 such employment permits have been issued, many to South Africa.
Removing the quota entirely “will support the work of those businesses responsible for importing and exporting consumer goods and products to and from Ireland”, said Mr English.
But Pat O’Donovan, of Cork-based O’Donovan Transport, said it was the additional bureaucracy involved in bringing in drivers to Ireland from outside the EEA that was driving the shortage.
“In the short term this is not going to make a difference because we still have to go through all the bureaucracy,” he said.
“That has to be streamlined and the bureaucracy taken out of it, if there is to be any form of a solution to the nightmare problem we are having getting drivers.”
Mr O’Donovan said he currently has two applications in to bring in drivers from South Africa and it will be “at least some time in December before that process will start”.
“That’s totally ridiculous,” he added.
“The next nightmare we have is between now and Christmas when we won’t have enough drivers to service our customers . . . scrapping the quota won’t ease those problems in the meantime.”
Haulage firms have to advertise for a month in Ireland that they are looking for drivers before applying to bring in one from outside the EEA. Then there is a process of visas, driving licence exchange and other paperwork to be completed.
Fiona Derry, of Derry Transport, which has depots in Dublin and Waterford, as well as in Co Armagh, said it is a "rigorous and costly process".
Cutting costs of the process would be a “game-changer” for the industry, she said.
“Drivers are in demand throughout the EU, they are in demand everywhere . . . Ireland isn’t any more attractive than other EU countries at the moment,” she added.
Ms Derry said haulage firms are already increasing wages and their costs to try and attract drivers amid a dual crisis of Covid and Brexit, “but they can only go so far”.
Eugene Drennan, president of the Irish Road Haulage Association (IRHA), said regulations to get drivers into the country are "cumbersome" and "troublesome" and can cost up to €4,000 per driver.
“It needs to be streamlined and modernised,” he said.
Under the general employment permits changes, which take effect immediately, most construction jobs will now be eligible for the permits, as will dispensing opticians, while 350 additional permits are being granted for hospitality managers.
Social workers will be eligible for a critical skills employment permit.
Another 1,000 horticulture workers, 500 meat deboners, 1,500 meat processors, 100 dairy-farm assistants and 100 equestrian work riders will be granted permits.
Mr English said the changes would “address the more immediate skills and labour shortages across a number of key economic sectors”.