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'Under pressure': Industry urges State to open horticultural workforce to non-EU workers

Noteworthy examines an industry push for visas for non-EU workers in horticulture that has raised concern with unions, migrant rights groups and some Government departments.

“GET PICKING FOR IRELAND.” 

This tagline is one of many put forward by the State this summer in a bid to stir up interest in a national recruitment drive to save the fruit and vegetables harvest. 

The call came as labour shortages grew as Covid-19 worked its way across Europe in the spring, greatly slowing the annual flow of seasonal migrant workers from Eastern Europe. 

The Department of Agriculture has been keen to stress that Ireland is “one of the most attractive countries for seasonal workers” in Europe. 

Despite this reassurance, the sector faces near continual labour shortages, and in recent years has turned its focus toward relaxation of visa rules for non-EU workers in the sector.  

As part of our Reaping the Harvest investigation into labour conditions for migrant workers, we trawled publicly available information and submitted freedom of information (FOI) requests to understand why the sector is facing labour shortages, the industry’s position on non-EU workers and where the State stands on the subject.

We also spoke with trade unions and migrant rights organisations about their concerns with the relaxation of rules on non-EU workers entering the horticultural labour market.

We can now highlight:

  • A national recruitment drive to fill jobs in the summer from the live register only led to a handful of positions being filled, according to data released to us. 
  • A 2018 survey carried out by Teagasc and released via FOI indicates that the industry faces difficulty in retaining staff due in part to low wages, poor working conditions, lack of suitable accommodation and poor recruitment skills.
  • The Department of Justice met a horticulture industry representative group in 2018 about an idea for a work programme for refugees.
  • The industry continues to push for horticulture to be removed from the State’s illegible list for visas for non-EU workers despite concerns raised by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment.

In the first part of this series out this morning, Noteworthy teamed up with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) to outline concerns raised about labour practices in the two largest industries in horticulture – mushrooms and soft fruits. 

Our colleagues at BIRN also painted a picture of the domestic impact of seasonal labour in Bulgaria and Romania, the home countries of a large percentage of workers who arrive on the island of Ireland every year.

Least known farming sector

While horticulture takes up less than 1% of agricultural land, it brought in €476m last year and directly employs 6,600 workers, with State plans to grow the sector by 2025.

According to Dermot Callaghan, head of horticultural development at the agri-research body Teagasc, the labour-intensive nature of the sector means that it is proportionally a bigger employer than agriculture, with almost half of all input costs linked to labour.

In line with this, requirements for seasonal labour “have been part and parcel of the business for decades”, he said, with shortages a common theme. 

In 2017, for example, the fruit sector alone reported losses of €2.38m due to labour shortages that saw 10% of crops go unpicked.

National recruitment drive

The dependence on low pay appears to be a factor in the lack of uptake of jobs domestically, including for a State-led recruitment drive to connect horticulture companies with jobseekers on the Live Register during the summer.

Despite 952 candidates registering for the Help2Harvest scheme, of whom 716 were referred to employers, only 34 people were offered positions as of early June 2020, 16 of which were accepted, according to data released under FOI. 

While issues with transportation to access farms was publicly outlined as a key factor for the low numbers, a draft version of the recruitment strategy released under FOI states that such jobs are “not popular among our domestic population of workers by reason of the pay, the seasonality and the tough physical nature of the fieldwork”.

According to the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection (DEASP), it “continues to offer support, such as the Help2Harvest campaign, to all employers who are recruiting, be it on a one-to-one basis or on a sectoral basis, should the need arise”. 

For some time now, however, the horticulture industry has indicated its desire to increase its non-EU workforce that it has outlined as vital to the future growth of the industry. 

Non-EEA workers

Those calling for change include the Horticulture Industry Forum (HIF) – an umbrella organisation to address serious challenges facing the industry -  that called for a “non-EU work permit programme to improve labour availability” in its 2017 vision to grow the sector.

Prior to this, the HIF sent a letter to the then-Minister for Equality Aodhán Ó Ríordáin in November 2015 to enquire if the Department of Justice (DOJ) would be interested in exploring a programme for refugees to work in horticulture. 

The letter, released under FOI, was forwarded to the Irish Refugee Protection Programme (IRPP) team, with one team member writing in early January 2015 that he suspected HIF “may be looking for the Department to help develop a proposal to use refugees to help fill employment gaps in a traditionally low paid job”. 

It was, however, agreed to meet with HIF and a representative from Commercial Mushroom Producers (CMP) in January 2016. The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection (DEASP) was also contacted by DOJ about the proposal.  

DEASP was informed that the Office for the Promotion of Migrant Integration (OPMI) had suggested that “such a scheme may be problematic as it will more than likely only provide very low pay which would fall below what someone would receive on Social Welfare once they get refugee status”. 

Later that year, DEASP indicated to the Department of Justice that it “would welcome an opportunity to meet” with HIF to “discuss how we may support the Commercial Mushroom Producers”.

According to the Department of Children, Equality, Disability and Integration, under which the IRPP and OPMI now sit, no formal record of the meeting was kept.

It said that the IRPP agreed to the meeting to “see what integration value in terms of employment opportunities there may have been in the HIF proposal” and that only one meeting was held.

DEASP told the investigation team that it has “no records to show any further discussion or engagement with the HIF”. The HIF told us that its proposal “was an exploratory idea”, while CMP did not respond to requests for comment. 

While this proposed scheme did not develop, the Government launched a pilot scheme in 2018 for permits – normally reserved for highly skilled occupations - for 500 horticultural workers that was quickly exhausted

Pilot permit scheme

A number of large agri-food companies are in favour of the scheme, with a spokesperson for Keelings telling the Business Post in May 2018 that it supported the idea.

According to a filing in the lobbying register, Keelings discussed “work permits for farm workers from outside the EEA” with the then-Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation Heather Humphreys at an event hosted by Monaghan Mushrooms in early 2018.

Humphreys was positive on the idea of a pilot scheme, according to a report from the Department’s management board in late April 2018. The report states that the Minister asked the Department to prioritise the emerging labour shortages in the agri-sector including the “requirement for low skilled, low wage workers” in the horticulture sub-sector.

In a statement, Keelings CEO Caroline Keeling said that seasonal workers are the “backbone of the horticultural sector” and that the company needs to recruit around 900 workers per year for the fruit harvest. 

A significant majority are recruited from other EU countries, she said, “due to an inability to get the required levels of skilled and experienced seasonal agriculture workers locally”.

She said that Keelings, however, believe that future requirements for seasonal workers may not be met through EU seasonal workers alone. Therefore, she said, there needs to be “very clear guidelines and regulations with regards to the potential recruitment by Irish agri-food businesses of non-EU seasonal workers and their required employment permits”.

According to data released by the Department of Enterprise (DETE), almost 90% of the permits have gone to the mushroom sector. 

In terms of worker nationalities, 202 are from Thailand and 142 from the Ukraine, with the remaining workers coming from 13 countries including Vietnam, China and Uganda. 

Under the scheme, there are specific obligations on employers around the welfare and prospects of the foreign nationals employed, including the provision of suitable accommodation and training such as language skills. 

The WRC told us that it has “not had any issues with the Seasonal Workers Pilot in the agricultural sector that came into effect in 2018 to date”. The Department of Enterprise confirmed that there are currently no plans to extend the pilot quota scheme.

‘Competitive disadvantage’

One apparent sticking point for the industry, however, is the fact that workers who receive permits must earn a minimum of €22,000 based on a 39-hour week, putting them on a higher pay scale than the majority of EU workers in the sector. 

According to notes from a multi-agency meeting on labour demands in the sector in April 2018, it was outlined that the proposal for an annual pay equivalent of €22,000 was “above sectoral pay and could cause competitive disadvantage”.

A 2018 Teagasc survey found that 77% of the horticultural workforce is made up of foreign nationals, with 87% of overall staff working at the “operative” level. Just under 40% of workers are paid minimum wage and 43% paid between the minimum wage and €12 per hour.

“The irony of those permits is that there’s a statutory instrument attached to them that provides for a higher rate of pay than the Irish minimum wage,” according to SIPTU’s Mick Brown. SIPTU has objected to the permit scheme as labour is already available in Europe, Brown said, pointing to the EU’s job mobility portal, EURES. 

The DEASP also found that the services of EURES were under-utilised by the sector, according to notes from the April 2018 multi-agency meeting, and advised that employers should get in touch with the service.

Ineligible list of employment

There has also been a concerted push from the horticulture sector for workers to be removed entirely from a list of occupations that are not eligible for permits as there is deemed to be a ready source of labour within Ireland and the European Economic Area (EEA).

According to a briefing document for Department of Agriculture (DAFM) Secretary General Brendan Gleeson ahead of a meeting with Keelings in early 2020, the industry in general is looking for “immediate extra work permits to be made available, with horticulture removed as an ineligible occupation”. 

Even before the pilot scheme came in, the Department of Enterprise said that it was “under pressure” to remove workers from the ineligible list, according to a briefing document for a meeting with DAFM in late October 2017 released under FOI. 

The briefing document states that removing workers from the ineligible list would “not resolve the structural issues which have resulted in the current labour deficit”, pointing to the seasonal, part-time and low pay nature of the work.

In an email to DAFM in early 2018, the Department again stated that it was receiving “growing requests to open up the work permits system to bring in unskilled labour, at minimum wage rates, for what are often seasonal type jobs (e.g. in horticulture)”.

“This would be quite a significant change to our economic migration policy and we would need a strong, evidence based case on which to craft any proposals of this nature,” the email said

The Department did not respond when asked for a statement from which individuals, agencies or companies it was receiving this pressure.

RhonaMcCord5 Rhona McCord, Community Coordinator at Unite the Union Source: Niall Sargent

Concerns over the direction of labour

Trade unions have come out heavily against such plans. In its submission for a 2018 review of the Agricultural Workers Joint Labour Committee, for example, the Irish Congress of Trades Unions (ICTU) argued that horticulture lobbying for non-EU work permits “is evidence of the low pay prevailing in the sector”.  

The Joint Labour Committee, which is not currently active, was set up to collectively negotiate the minimum rates of pay and conditions of employment for agricultural workers.

Rhona McCord of Unite the Union said that she is weary of the narrative around an urgent need for a migrant labour force as large companies in the sector are making healthy profits and have contracts with multinational supermarket chains. 

Migrant Rights Centre Ireland director Edel McGinley said that it is not against seasonal work but is against permit systems that don’t allow workers “to move into different categories of employment [and] leave the job if they want to and get a better job somewhere else”.

“The whole moving to a seasonal workforce very much serves the employer because if you have a workforce that is cyclical, it doesn’t really matter, you’re going to get rid of them anyway, they’re going back anyway,” she said. 

Concerns were also raised by the Department of Enterprise, according to internal records released to us. In a specific report on work permits for the agricultural sector in May 2018, the Department stated that “careful consideration” must be given to the protection of migrant workers who are a “vulnerable class of people”. 

The 2018 Review of Economic Migration Policy Report also emphasised economic migration alone is “not a sustainable long-term solution” to labour shortages and can actually help to perpetuate shortages in the economy and constrain investment if not properly managed.

Difficult to increase wages

In part one of this investigation, union representatives and labour rights groups told us that authorities should be more concerned with ensuring better wages for all workers.

Teagasc’s 2018 labour survey released under FOI indicates, however, that the industry views this as a difficult task. According to the survey, producers would need to pay €13.92 to attract staff from other jobs. 

Growers indicated, however, that they were “unable to raise wage rates and improve working conditions that could better enable them to attract and compete for staff”. 

Labour shortages, the report found, are “further exacerbated by inadequate recruitment practices, a lack of suitable accommodation for new staff and a general need to improve professionalism in relation to HR management”.

The country’s largest farming representative group, the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA), argued against increasing the minimum wage for agricultural workers in a recent submission to the Low Pay Commission review.  

It cited concerns over the likes of competition in the mushroom market from Polish farms, as well as competition from vegetable and fruit imports from the UK and Spain, where minimum wages are lower.

The IFA asked the Commission to consider the negative impact of any further minimum wage increases on the viability of such labour-intensive sectors. “In a sector, where labour accounts for 45% of total input costs, this represents a significant disadvantage to Irish producers,” it said. 

The IFA also sought abolition of the Agricultural Joint Labour Committee in 2018, according to a submission to the Labour Court released via FOI

“It is believed that employment levels on labour intensive farms are less than they would be if wage rates were lower,” the IFA said. “It has been stated by a number of our employers that a saving in wages in many horticultural businesses would be spent immediately on extra employees.”

When asked for any further comment, a spokesperson for the IFA said that the Low Pay Commission submission, along with the others referenced, “sets out IFA’s position on the issues”.

***

In the first part of this series, we examined concerns with labour practices in the two largest industries in horticulture – mushrooms and soft fruit production.

In part two, we delved into the domestic impact of seasonal migration to Ireland in Bulgaria and Romania – both good and bad.

Reporting from Niall Sargent of Noteworthy as part of its Reaping the Harvest joint-investigation with Maria Cheresheva and Marcel Gascón Barberá of the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.

Noteworthy is the investigative journalism platform from TheJournal.ie. You can support our work by helping to fund one of our other investigation proposals or submitting an idea for a story. We have a number of farming-related proposals which you can view here. 

The production of this investigation was supported by a grant from the IJ4EU fund. The International Press Institute (IPI), the European Journalism Centre (EJC) and any other partners in the IJ4EU fund are not responsible for the content published and any use made out of it. 

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