Border restrictions across Europe have left food companies and farmers in Ireland and across the EU fearful of labour shortages, because they depend on migrant workers.
Irish agri-food businesses such as meat processing, horticulture, and dairy farming depend significantly on non-Irish workers.
They include non-EU citizens, with hiring of migrant workers facilitated by the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation in 2018 and 2019, by issuing permits for 2,450 food and agriculture workers from outside the European Economic Area (EEA).
Of these, 1,800 permits are for meat processing operatives, 500 for the horticulture sector, and 150 for dairy farm assistants.
Demand for such workers reached an 11-year high in 2019, with the Department receiving 18,940 applications for employment permits across all business sectors.
However, the flow of workers could dry up due to restrictions, not least of which is the Irish health authorities now requiring anyone coming into Ireland, apart from Northern Ireland, to restrict their movements on arrival for 14 days.
This is now a requirement in most EU countries.
Eastern countries have been a good source of workers for food companies and farmers in western Europe. However, such workers now face quarantines, and they would have to run a gauntlet of border restrictions, especially if travelling overland (which might be their best options, due to so many flights being cancelled).
Non-EU workers are likely to find it even more difficult to travel to where the work is.
Countries with big horticulture businesses that supply much of Europe, such as Italy and Spain, are already feeling the pinch.
Fruit and vegetable supplies in supermarkets in Ireland and throughout the EU could be reduced due to a lack of workers.
Harvesting over 25% of the food produced in Italy is done by more than 370,000 seasonal workers from abroad.
The country’s high Covid-19 incidence will make getting workers even harder.
French farmers need over 200,000 seasonal workers for fruit and vegetable harvesting. And the UK needs up to 100,000 workers each year to harvest and process crops.
Germany‘s 23,000-hectare white asparagus harvest will present an early test of migrant worker availability.
Last year, German farmers employed up to 85,000 seasonal workers at peak labour times.
But border restrictions imposed by Austria and Hungary have complicated efforts to bring in workers from Romania, a major source of farm labour.
Many workers come from Poland and Bulgaria also.
Like most EU countries, Germany would require seasonal workers coming from overseas to go into a 14-day quarantine.
To save the seasonal “spargel“ white asparagus treat enjoyed by German consumers each spring, the German government is considering flying seasonal workers in direct, or issuing special permits that would be acceptable to Austria and Hungary’s border police.