Seafood exporter’s plea to Executive on chronic shortage of our workers

A chronic shortage of workers due to Brexit is threatening global exports by Rooney Fish, one of Northern Ireland’s leading fish and seafood processors.

By Sam Butler
Monday, 6th September 2021, 10:56 am

A chronic shortage of workers due to Brexit is threatening global exports by Rooney Fish, one of Northern Ireland’s leading fish and seafood processors.

The situation has led a plea Andrew Rooney, director of the Kilkeel-based business, for urgent action by the Northern Ireland Executive.

“We lost a number of workers from abroad as Brexit approached and have been unable to replace them since due of the rules on migrant labour,” explains Andrew.

Andrew Rooney of Rooney Fish in Kilkeel and Millbay Oysters in Carlingford in plea to Executive to help tackle chronic shortage of workers

“Finding workers locally with the right skills and motivation for fish and shellfish processing has also been extremely difficult. It’s becoming a serious problem as our business has steadily recovered from the challenges of Brexit and then Covid-19. We’ve managed successfully to recover our strong customer base which stretches from Europe to China and Japan.”

In addition to the fish and seafood business, Andrew runs the multi-award winning Millbay Oysters grown on Ireland’s biggest oyster farm in the pristine waters of Carlingford Lough.

The plump and tasty oysters, which are popular at food markets in China, have been voted the best in the UK and in Ireland by judges in the influential Guild of Fine Food’s annual Great Taste Awards and the Blas na hEireann Irish Food Awards. The oysters are again in the running for major awards in this year’s Great British Food Awards and Blas na hEireann.

The oysters, in addition, are popular with chefs at high-end restaurants in Paris and London. The company, based overlooking Kilkeel Harbour, has its own fishing boats and currently exports langoustines, crabs, crab claws and other shellfish to restaurants and other food operators in Japan and South Korea, making it Northern Ireland’s biggest fish and seafood exporter. It’s a fiercely competitive business in which we have a reputation for consistently high quality products that offer value for money and are delivered when required.

“We’ve worked extremely hard to rebuild relationships with established and to develop new contacts and have no intention of disappointing them. We have the export business and just need an initial intake of around 10 experienced people as soon as practicable to keep the products flowing through the plant to them when they want them,” adds Andrew.

Rooney Fish was founded by the late John Rooney, Andrew’s father, in 1975. Andrew specialised in exports and has developed a substantial network of influential business contacts worldwide.

“I could find the skilled people I need from other countries specialising in seafood but for restrictive Brexit rules,” he says.

Andrew’s cry for urgent assistance is shared by other major food processors here which are also finding it hard to recruit workers lost due to Brexit. Most of Northern Ireland’s vitally important beef exporters also need additional skilled workers. Key industry bodies such as the Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association (NIFDA) and Food NI share their concerns about the likely impact of individual businesses and the wider economy.

Food and drink currently generates upwards of £5 billion to the economy - especially rural sections of the community - and employs over 100,000 people.

Further evidence of the crisis facing the industry is seen in a recent study by business consultants Grant Thornton suggesting some local agri-food businesses are operating at between 75-90% of normal staffing levels, while the supply chain is also facing a major shortage of HGV drivers.

“Across the UK, the food and drink sector is experiencing serious difficulty in accessing labour, with Brexit and Covid-19 creating a perfect storm across the supply chain leaving many farmers, food processors and supermarkets struggling to meet demand,” Michael Bell, executive director, NIFDA, says.

The Grant Thornton figures reveal that UK food and drink companies have an average vacancy rate of 13%. This means there are potentially more than 500,000 vacancies across the United Kingdom.

“These difficulties should act as a wakeup call for government. The current situation is unsustainable and, if it deteriorates, we are looking at higher food prices, choice for consumers significantly curtailed and ultimately Northern Ireland’s recovery from the pandemic stalled. We will continue to engage heavily with politicians locally and nationally to address this issue and deliver workable solutions,” Michael adds.

Food NI’s Michele Shirlow continues: “This is an immensely worrying situation for such a strategically important industry, which includes many of our members including Rooney Fish. We would, therefore, urge the Executive to provide essential support for companies. We need them to be able to meet the requirements of existing and future customers especially those in international markets.”

The UK food and drink industry has recently come together to call for a new 12-month Covid-19 Recovery Visa to help fill a shortfall in workers. It also wants increased spending on skills training.

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