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Dickson Speaks on Concerning Labour Shortages in NI

Today, East Antrim Alliance MLA, Stewart Dickson, spoke in favour of an Assembly motion noting with concern the impact of labour shortages in Northern Ireland.

Motion: ‘That this Assembly notes with concern the impact that labour shortages are having in the agri-food and haulage sectors locally and in Britain; acknowledges that these sectors relied on EU labour; recognises that these labour shortages are a direct consequence of Brexit and the end to freedom of movement for EU workers; believes that the British Government needs to act urgently to address labour shortages and enable EU citizens to come here to work and live; and calls on the Minister for the Economy to make clear to the British Government the significant impact labour shortages are having on the local economy and the need to rectify the situation.’


Thank you Mr Speaker. I rise to support the motion.

Again, it seems we are picking up the pieces of Brexit, and the harm that it is starting to do to our economy. As increasingly we are hearing of the shortages of people, particularly in logistics and hospitality.

We are also facing a major shortage in healthcare staff, and have been for years.

There are some that say that this is a labour shortage that is impacting the entire world. Indeed, global supply chains have been majorly disrupted by the Covid-19 Pandemic, as has the labour market in many places.

However, it appears this has compounded with the problems of Brexit in the UK to create an even more serious situation. Many EU workers left the UK during the Pandemic, due to a fall in demand for labour in many sectors.

However, following the UK’s departure from the EU at the start of this year, and the end of Freedom of Movement, overnight a major source of workers has been cut off. So while the Pandemic has had its impact, Brexit has only made it worse.

You can’t help but note that petrol pumps are not running dry in France or Germany.

Luckily in Northern Ireland we have not seen fuel shortages, however I believe there is a general feeling across this Assembly that something should be done to tackle the labour shortage.

Hospitality has been majorly impacted, with reduced hours and closures of restaurants, just as they were recovering from the extremely challenging Covid-19 restrictions.

Agriculture is a major industry for Northern Ireland and without workers to pick and process crops for example, we cannot continue to expand our successful agrifood business. So it is welcome that the DAERA Minister is seeking to make clear to the UK Government the serious negative impact of Brexit on worker availability for our food sector, and the need for action.

Unfortunately, the UK Government’s response has been haphazard. Saying that we need to create a high skill, high wage economy. But this does not happen overnight, but requires investment in skills and training.

We also need to challenge the narrative that workers from the EU are essentially low skill, cheap labour. For years so many people from the EU have come to Northern Ireland and made an invaluable contribution bringing a wide array of in demand skills, across society and economy, from the Health Service, to the tech

sector, to making sure we get the goods we need and want in the shops for example.

So economic isolation will not automatically deliver this high wage, high skill economy. In fact, there is a worrying indication that this winter may be the most financially stretched in decades for many families, and shortages of certain goods may only get worse due to shortages of workers in food processing and logistics.

We should remember, Germany for example is highly productive economy, with high wages, as are the Scandinavian countries, yet they have not had to isolate themselves to achieve this. But these countries do invest in skills and infrastructure.

The UK Government have made minor concessions on short visas for European workers, but it really is not enough.

In the context of shortages of workers elsewhere, why would EU workers leave their home countries to come to the UK, where they are given only a few short months and then told to leave? When they have the potential to go to 26 other countries and enjoy greater rights, and the ability to settle there permanently.

So we have major work to do to repair our reputation as a welcoming country for workers.

Of course, we do want a high wage, high skill, productive economy, but we need to invest in people and provide a proper social security net to allow for this.

We also need to realise that as we move from a fossil fuel dependent economy, to a clean, zero carbon future, we will need to ensure that no-one is left behind. That is why Alliance has produced its Green New Deal proposals to ensure training and support for everyone that needs it moving forward.

In closing Mr Speaker, labour shortages can hamper an economy, with businesses unable to expand, hiring becoming very expensive, and consumer choice diminished.

The UK Government has the ability to tackle the labour crisis that we are facing, by allowing the workers we need to come to this country, and making the UK a welcoming country for all those workers that want to come here and contribute to our economy and society.

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