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Keelings controversy: Taoiseach says workers resident in Ireland may be called upon to pick summer crops

Keelings Fruit flew 189 workers from Bulgaria to Ireland last week to pick fruit.

Image: Shutterstock/Tiplyashina Evgeniya

TAOISEACH LEO VARADKAR has said Irish citizens or those resident in Ireland might be tasked with picking fruit and vegetables. 

Speaking to reporters today, Varadkar said agricultural workers are essential workers. 

Cabinet is today reviewing travel restrictions at ports and airports controversy arose last week when Keelings Fruit revealed that it flew 189 workers from Bulgaria to Ireland this week to pick fruit.

Keelings Fruit said that only 40 people locally applied for work as seasonal fruit pickers.

The Irish company’s decision to fly workers in during unprecedented restrictions on movement across the world was criticised and questioned by politicians and members of the public – who raised concerns about social distancing measures on flights, if checks were carried out at Dublin Airport, and whether protective measures are being taken by Keelings.

The government had initially said that “seasonal workers are critical to the agricultural sector in terms of harvesting, planting and tending functions, especially in the current season.”

However, Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan said he was not comfortable with the company’s decision to fly in the workers.

Holohan said the actions of companies in this manner were “not consistent” with public health advice issued around travel.

Varadkar later said that he agreed with the assessment of the CMO, and that the advice for ports and airports, and possibly foreign workers too, would be reviewed.

However, speaking today, the Taoiseach said agricultural workers are needed to bring in the harvest which will “ensure we have enough food to eat”.

“So, I think people will understand why they are essential workers,” he said, adding that he had not foreseen the situation where workers from outside Ireland would be needed. 

“When we deemed agricultural workers to be essential workers I hadn’t envisaged hundreds of agricultural workers coming in from outside the country, so I think what we are going to try and do now is work with the sector to see if we can find an adequate number of Irish people or people resident in Ireland, at the very least, who will take up those positions, and if not, then we have to take a decision: Do we allow the crop to fail, which isn’t a good thing, or do we allow workers to continue to come in from other parts of the EU with defined and monitored arrangements to make sure that they don’t create a new cluster,” said the Taoiseach.

Airports and ports need to remain open, he said, stating that people returning to Ireland are told to restrict their movements for 14 days. 

Varadkar said the Cabinet will discuss if there “are there better ways that we can monitor that people are doing that”. 

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