East Derry MLA Claire Sugden has expressed her “profound concern” that current labour shortages and other economic forces are making the NI pig industry unsustainable.

Farming, and the agri-food industry, were experiencing extreme pressures generally, Sugden said.

It was, however, the NI pig sector that was suffering the most, with devastating knock-on effects.

“The broad consensus across the industry is that the huge labour shortages are having the most serious impact,” said the independent MLA.

“Traditionally, many of the roles that are currently vacant would have been filled by migrant workers, but because of the post-Brexit changes to immigration law, workers from Europe are now not able to do so.

“Rules made in Westminster – not in Stormont – mean access to migrant labour is now limited to skilled jobs that meet set salary levels and English language requirements.

"As a result, we simply cannot find enough slaughter plant operatives and butchers in our abattoirs and processing plants.”

Knock-on effects for the NI pig industry

The knock-on effect of this was that pigs could not be slaughtered and processed quickly enough, Sugden said.

"Farmers and plants had to keep pigs longer, which meant farmers were not just spending more on feed – the price of which had also soared in recent months - but were actually having to pay price penalties for overweight animals.

“It truly is a perfect storm of failed regulations, economics and other forces that together are conspiring to make pig farming across Northern Ireland unsustainable,” Sugden continued.

“This is a precarious and very stressful place for farmers and their families to find themselves.

"But it is also very concerning that agriculture – Northern Ireland’s biggest industry – has been left in this situation.

“The Minister of Agriculture Environment and Rural Affairs Edwin Poots has confirmed to me that no livestock has yet had to be culled and incinerated as a result of the labour shortages, but it is surely only a matter of time if the situation continues as it is.

“Our ministers in Stormont – and our MPs in Westminster – need to keep up pressure on the UK government to relax immigration laws so that this vital industry is given security.”

Temporary working visas

In August the UK government opened a scheme that would grant 800 temporary working visas for butchers in the pig sector. This closed for applications on December 31.

“This was not enough then and it is not enough now,” Sugden said.

“Spreading those 800 workers across the UK is a drop in the ocean compared to what is needed.

"Indeed, there is no evidence that this has had any positive impact on the situation in Northern Ireland.

“As well as the clear issue around migrant workers, there are also steps our ministers should be taking here, including training more workers, offering better pay and incentives and developing and increasing the use of automated technology to process meat.

“These, however, may only go so far – and almost certainly will not solve what is a pressing problem in the short-term.

"Minister Poots has said pay has already been improved and incentives offered, but domestic recruitment is still falling well short of what is needed.

“The minister has rightly, if perhaps reservedly, described the situation as ‘worrying’.

"It is in fact a desperate situation for the NI pig industry and support for the industry in the short-term is needed urgently while the obvious longer-term solutions are delivered.”