Agri-food Sector: Labour Shortages

Oral Answers to Questions — Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:00 pm on 5th October 2021.

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Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance 2:00 pm, 5th October 2021

1. Mr Blair asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs what actions his Department is taking to address labour shortages in the agri-food sector. (AQO 2526/17-22)

Photo of Maolíosa McHugh Maolíosa McHugh Sinn Féin

6. Mr McHugh asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs for an update on labour shortages in the pig industry. (AQO 2531/17-22)

Photo of Sinead McLaughlin Sinead McLaughlin Social Democratic and Labour Party

7. Ms McLaughlin asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs what measures he has put in place to assist the meat processing industry to address the shortage of labour in abattoirs. (AQO 2532/17-22)

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to group questions 1, 6 and 7.

I am acutely aware of the labour problems facing our meat processing sector and the growing shortages, particularly in the number of slaughter plant operatives and butchers in our abattoirs and processing plants. I have engaged extensively and held numerous meetings with stakeholders across our food processing sector about their concerns and how best to resolve the issue.

Despite employers offering competitive wages and other incentives, they have struggled to recruit all the workers that they need, because insufficient appetite exists amongst our domestic workforce for those types of jobs. For a significant period, we have relied on migrant workers to fill the labour gap in the agri-food industry. Stakeholders, however, have indicated that the new UK immigration system has removed a previously existing route to filling vacancies. The new system, while offering a route to filling skilled vacancies, is cumbersome. Firms report that it is extremely difficult for them to identify migrants who meet all elements of the eligibility criteria and have identified the English language requirement as a particular barrier to entry.

I am obviously very concerned about the situation and am committed to doing what I can. As you know, immigration policy is a reserved matter, so my focus has been on ongoing communication with the top levels of Government in Whitehall. I have written to the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary and George Eustice to highlight the severity of the problem in the hope that we can remedy the situation as quickly as possible. We have seen some movement with the recent announcement of additional temporary visas for HGV drivers and poultry workers, but that is not enough, and I will keep pressing for more.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

I thank the Minister for the detail in that reply. Given his contact with senior officials in Whitehall, has any request been made for an extension to or a review of the previous EU settlement scheme and the time frames for that? Is all of that worth revisiting?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

As a supporter of Brexit, I wanted to see an end to the open-door policy on immigration. However, we should be in a position where we can bring people in where we need them, and we certainly need them in the food industry. I have repeatedly made that point to the UK Government, who have indicated that a lot of people at a local level are still unemployed and that they wish to have them in this well-paid employment. Again, I will point out to them that these are skilled jobs and that you cannot just lift someone out of unemployment and put them straight into a job like butchery or HGV driving. There has to be training and, in some instances, considerable training that takes years. Whitehall needs to look at that yet again.

Photo of Maolíosa McHugh Maolíosa McHugh Sinn Féin

I am sure, Minister, that you will not agree with me, but, at the end of the day, this is as a result of Brexit. What pressure will you bring to bear on the British Government to ensure that EU workers, in particular, can come to the North of Ireland to work and live and to help to rescue us from the impending crisis in the agri-food sector?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I would have thought that a gentleman who lives so close to the border would know what is going on just across it. The chairman of the Irish Farmers' Association (IFA) national pigs committee, Roy Gallie, has said that the pig meat sector is under extreme pressure, due to a lack of suitable labour at processing level and on farms. The shortage of large-animal vets was raised by the Veterinary Ireland president, on the back of concerns recently expressed by the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine. Paul Brophy, who is one of the largest growers of broccoli in Ireland, described labour issues in the sector as "chronic" and that it will be the "unwinding of the industry" if it is not addressed.

The Member may have some glowing report that nobody else knows about, describing how good things are in the European Union on this issue, but it is an issue that has been piling up in the European Union as well as in the United Kingdom. We are actually in a better position to respond because we can go to places like the Philippines and other countries where workforces are available. We just need an adjustment in government policy to do it. The Irish Government are stuck with EU rules, which, thankfully, we do not have.

Photo of Sinead McLaughlin Sinead McLaughlin Social Democratic and Labour Party

Unfortunately, skills shortages in the sector were entirely predictable, with EU workers going back to their homeland. What preparations has the Minister made in order to ensure that a pipeline of skills is available to those industries? Has he discussed apprenticeships and traineeships in order to fill the gaps that have been left by our European friends who have left this country because they are no longer welcome?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I really do have to pull the Member into line for that last comment. Who says that EU workers are not welcome in Northern Ireland and that they left here because they were not welcome?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

They have been here for many years and were very welcome to continue to stay in Northern Ireland. The people who supported Brexit voted for it so that we would not have uncontrolled immigration. Perhaps the Member wants uncontrolled immigration, because that keeps people's pay down and ensures that people work on minimum wage. I am glad to see lorry drivers, digger drivers and people who work in meat plants getting an uplift in their pay, because they work hard and they deserve to be well paid for the work that they do. I welcome those aspects that Brexit has delivered that mean higher pay for lower-paid workers. Perhaps the SDLP will catch on that that is a good thing for the community.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The shortage of skilled labour is creating a potential difficulty for animal welfare. Has the Minister been made aware of any concerns, particularly from our pig and poultry farmers, who have limited space capacity? How urgent is the situation and how is it going to be addressed in the short and long term? Has he been in touch with the Minister for the Economy?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

The situation is extremely urgent. We have engaged extensively with the industry and we are actively looking at our options. One of the options includes slaughtering pigs at birth so that the backlog that is building up does not continue unabated. Another option is to slaughter animals on-farm at some stage. However, that does not particularly deal with the instantaneous problem, because we have a backlog now.

One of the other areas that we could look at is putting pigs into cold storage. The problem is not the capacity for slaughter but the capacity for butchery. The processing companies would have to want to do that, but we are open to suggestions from the industry. The industry is best placed to come forward with solutions, and we will work closely with the industry to try to achieve them.

Photo of William Irwin William Irwin DUP

The previous Member mentioned pigs on-farm. I heard from a pig producer last night who is concerned that, as the weeks go by, his pigs are backing up on-farm. He has difficulty in relation to that. Does the Minister agree that, while Members in the House blame Brexit, the Republic of Ireland has the very same problem and it is still in the European Union?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I indicated to Mr McHugh — clearly, Ms McLaughlin did not take it in — what the farming and veterinary communities are saying down there. There is a shortage of key workers, and a lot of that has to do with EU policy, in that they can only bring people from the European Union. We had this problem in the health service many years ago, and we still have it. Many doctors used to come from India, Malaysia and countries like that, but we could not get them and we had to close hospital units because of a lack of doctors. The same applies in this instance. The workers are out there in the world, and we can bring them in. What I am saying to the UK Government is that we are not looking for tens of thousands of people here; we are looking for thousands — a relatively small number.

That number will not throw immigration out of control. Rather, it will ensure that the food on our farms can be delivered to local people right across the United Kingdom.

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party

In January 2021, the Minister tweeted Arron Banks, one of the main drivers behind the Leave.EU movement, to thank him for all that he did to make Brexit happen. Leave.EU notoriously put up a poster that said "Breaking point" and carried a picture of hundreds of thousands of migrants. What about Brexit did the Minister think was not about ending migration? Would he like to apologise to those who are suffering as a result of the labour crisis in this country?

Some Members:

Hear, hear.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

What is very clear is that we had uncontrolled immigration. I have no problem with immigration. I have no problem with bringing in people whom we need. Uncontrolled immigration is entirely different, and I welcome the fact that we no longer have that. I also welcome the fact that our workers at the lower end of the scale are now better paid. If the Member is not aware that lorry drivers, digger drivers and people working in food factories have all had significant wage uplifts, the Member is not living in the real world, because the rest of us do know that. I welcome the fact that low-paid workers have had their pay increased since we left the European Union. That is part of the policy of not having uncontrolled immigration, which resulted in a situation in which everybody who worked in those types of jobs was on minimum wage. That was an unacceptable situation.