Meat Industry Ireland has warned politicians that the sector will continue to depend on workers from abroad to meet labour requirements.

Appearing before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Phillip Carroll, chairperson of Meat Industry Ireland said that 80% of the workforce were Irish or from an EU country.

He said that since 2018 the domestic workforce has been unable to meet the needs of the sector and that new permits for general operatives have helped fill vacancies.

Mr Carroll told TDs and Senators that meat processing will remain a labour-intensive operation for some time to come.

Director of the Migrant Rights Centre Edel McGinley was also before the committee today.

Both organisations were offering their views on the proposed Employment Permits (Consolidation and Amendment) Bill 2019.

The legislation seeks to update the employment permits system and make it more flexible.

Ms McGinley told politicians that this not a bad thing "per-se", however she warned that flexibility with limited rights is dangerous.

She said that the bill in its current form was developed in 2019, however she countered that since then people have developed greater appreciation for essential workers.

Ms McGinley said that the bill still reflects a hierarchy of rights and a multi-tiered system that penalises essential workers in the labour market.

The Migrant Rights Centre is calling for workers on employment permits to be given labour market mobility after two years and immediate rights to family reunion.

It also wants the bill to provide measures that will allow migrants who are recruited temporarily, such as seasonal workers, to transition into longer-term status if they meet the requirements for other types of employment permits.

MRCI say that temporary migration systems, without adequate safeguards, can result in employers taking advantage of the power imbalance, with workers forced into irregularity because of not being able to extend or gain a more secure status.

Sinn Féin's spokesperson on Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Louise O'Reilly said that it wasn't right for a migrant worker to be treated differently to any other worker.

She asked Philip Carroll about the level of union membership in the meat sector.

Mr Carroll told the deputy that there are some companies with formal union recognition, but that some do not recognised them.

He said that he did not have a figure as to how many factories recognise unions, however he asserted that in any plant where there is union recognition, he doesn't believe that there is any difference between a worker who is availing of a permit versus those that are not.

Louise O'Reilly asked Meat Industry Ireland if increasing wages in the meat sector might help to attract domestic workers into meat factories.

Cormac Healy of MII said that while people may start on pay close to the minimum wage, there is scope to progress. He also said that it was a competitive industry, and that Ireland was on par or ahead of pay levels in the UK.

Fine Gael's Richard Bruton was told by MII's Joe Ryan that the turnover of workers on permits is "very low".

Paul Murphy of People Before Profit said that the pandemic has shone a light on conditions in some meat plants.

He asked MII if poor working conditions were a "compounding factor" regarding the level of Covid-19 outbreaks in meat factories.

Cormac Healy said that he didn't accept that and that positivity rates across 90 sites were now "extremely low".