essential workers

'The demand for labour is unaffected by the pandemic': Food producers under pressure as harvest season begins

Foreign supply chain anxiety could increase the need for the harvest season to run smoothly.

THE NEWS LATE last week that Keelings Fruit flew 189 workers from Bulgaria to Ireland on a chartered flight to pick fruit has cast agricultural labour practices into the spotlight.

Commercial horticultural experts are saying that it’s important that Ireland’s harvest season goes ahead as normal to hedge against any potential shocks to foreign fruit and vegetable supply chains.

The North County Dublin company’s decision to fly the workers in while pandemic-related restrictions on movement are in place across the world was criticised and questioned by politicians and members of the public, who have queried what protective measures were taken by Keelings.

Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan said he was not comfortable with the company’s decision to fly in the workers and that its actions were “not consistent” with public health advice issued around travel.

But the EU has deemed seasonal farmworkers ‘essential’ during the pandemic and there are currently no entry restrictions in place at Irish ports or airports.

Anyone coming into Ireland is required to restrict their movement on arrival for 14 days although there is an exemption on those travelling from Northern Ireland. 

Keelings confirmed last week that the workers would isolate for two weeks before commencing work. The fruit pickers have also been placed in “family units”, segregated from other workers, to reduce any risk of spreading coronavirus, according to today’s Irish Times.

So how has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted hiring practices in the fruit and vegetable sector of Irish agriculture? 

The Irish Farmers Association has estimated that around 1,500 seasonal workers are required by Ireland’s commercial farms to harvest fruit and vegetables in the coming months.

This demand for seasonal labour has not been affected by the outbreak of coronavirus or government-imposed restrictions on movement — a similar number of foreign seasonal workers would have been required by the sector last year as well.

The situation is mirrored on the continent.

Germany needs an extra 300,000 seasonal workers from abroad every harvest season, France needs 200,000 and the UK usually hires around 70,000 to 80,000.

According to the most recent labour survey conducted by Teagasc, the state’s agricultural research and training agency, there were over 7,000 people employed directly in the horticultural sector in Ireland in 2018.

A source with knowledge of the industry, who did not wish to be named, said that of that total around 2,000 are seasonal workers, the vast bulk of whom are hired from abroad.

Out of this, some 1,500 workers are required to harvest Ireland’s fruit and vegetable crops.

In this market segment, Keelings Ireland — which plans to hire 900 seasonal workers this year — is traditionally the largest employer but there are roughly 20 Irish farms involved in the practice.

Keelings Fruit said last week that just 40 people locally applied for the 900 jobs advertised this year. 

In a statement last Friday, the government said, “A national recruitment campaign will start shortly with the aim of recruiting a large number of temporary workers for the Horticulture sector from the live register within Ireland.”

Import substitutes

Dermot Callaghan, head of the Horticultural Development Department at Teagasc agreed with Keelings that Irish people tend not to apply for these jobs. He said, “They seem to prefer other types of work and that’s been the experience since the 1990s.”

Callaghan added, “The Irish horticulture sector is completely above-board in terms of rates of pay.

“It pays minimum wage and more to attract workers. Okay, it’s at the lower rate, but they have to compete against hotels and retail in terms of attracting (seasonal) workers into their sector.

Although the need for foreign seasonal labour hasn’t necessarily been increased by the pandemic, Callaghan said the crisis demands that the harvest goes smoothly.

If the supply of labour for some reason stopped, Callaghan said, “The impact would be that you couldn’t get crops harvested, so it means that you would end up importing to replace the produce you can’t grow here.”

In the current climate, he added, other European countries are having trouble “attracting workers into their jurisdiction to harvest their own crops… So if there is a situation where production is compromised, say across the EU, it will be harder to find those import substitutes.

It would make sense to me that we would be extremely focused on harvesting what crops we have in play in Ireland this year to limit our exposure to any external circumstances.

“It’s even more important in a time like this, that we’re able to harvest all of what we have produced, all we have in production.”

Yesterday, the Cabinet sub-committee on COVID-19 met to discuss, among other things, potential options to tighten travel restrictions at ports and airports.

In a statement last night, the Government said, “Ireland needs to find a balance which allows the airports and ports to stay open, in order to allow the movement of supplies, essential workers, and for Irish citizens to be able to return home, but which also minimises the risk of transmission of the virus.

“The sub-committee discussed a range of options to see whether there is a better way of achieving those objectives on travel. These will now be discussed further with Cabinet, and with the administration in Northern Ireland before a final decision is made.”

Speaking at a press conference today, Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe said, “Seasonal workers are very important for making food to be made available in our country.”

He reiterated that measures will be announced soon to ensure “that those who are travelling into our country for work are implementing the public health guidance that has been issued here in Ireland.”

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