A shortage of workers in the food supply industry could result in pigs being slaughtered at birth in Northern Ireland, the Agriculture Minister has told MLAs.
Edwin Poots, speaking during ministerial question time at Stormont, said the problems facing the agri-food sector due to labour shortages are “extremely urgent”.
He was asked to give an update on labour problems facing the meat processing industry and highlighted shortages in relation to the number of slaughter plant operatives and butchers in abattoirs and processing plants.
Mr Poots added: “I have been engaging extensively and have held numerous meetings with stakeholders from across our food processing sector about their concerns and how best to resolve the issue.
For a significant period of time we have relied on migrant workers to fill the labour gap in the agri-food industryEdwin Poots
“Despite employers offering competitive wages and other incentives, they have struggled to recruit all the workers they need because an insufficient appetite exists amongst our domestic workforce for those types of jobs.”
He continued: “For a significant period of time we have relied on migrant workers to fill the labour gap in the agri-food industry. Stakeholders though have indicated that the new UK immigration system has removed a previously existing route to fulfil vacancies.
“A new system, while offering a route to fill vacancies, is cumbersome, and firms report that it is extremely difficult for them to identify migrants who fulfil all elements of the eligibility criteria and have identified the English language requirement as a particular barrier.
“I am obviously very concerned at the situation. My focus has been ongoing communication at top levels with Government in Whitehall to highlight the severity of the problem. It is hoped that we can remedy the situation as quickly as possible.”
Sinn Fein and SDLP MLAs said the labour shortage was a direct result of Brexit, which the DUP minister supported.
Mr Poots said: “As someone who was a supporter of Brexit, I wanted to see an end to the open door policy in terms of immigration, but we should be in a position where we can bring people in where we need them.
“We certainly need them in the food industry and that is the point I have been making repeatedly to the UK Government. I do think it needs to be looked at again by Whitehall.”
Ulster Unionist MLA Roy Beggs asked if the labour shortage was creating animal welfare issues.
He added: “How urgent is this situation and how is it going to be addressed in the short term and in the long term?”
Mr Poots said: “It is extremely urgent. We have engaged extensively with the industry, we are actively looking at our options. Some of the options are to actually slaughter pigs at birth so that this backlog which is building up isn’t something that continues unabated, another one is to slaughter animals on farm at some stage.
“But that doesn’t deal with the instantaneous problem because we have a back up now, and one of the other areas we could look at is putting pigs into cold storage. The problem is not the capacity for slaughter, the problem is the capacity for butchery.”
The minister was also asked about problems farmers have experienced in moving cattle from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, which he said was a result of the Northern Ireland Protocol.
He said: “We are in the circumstances we are in today because the protocol applies, and it is causing misery to this sector and a whole host of other sectors.”
TUV leader Jim Allister said: “If the minister is unable to do anything about this other than to make representations, doesn’t it demonstrate both the tyranny of the protocol and his folly in respect of something he could do something about, namely continuing to implement the checks which keep the iniquitous protocol alive?”
Mr Poots said: “This is Westminster policy which has been imposed upon Northern Ireland. I would also remind the member that we are not going to win this battle by going on the streets, we will win this battle by good politics.”