Keelings acknowledge the understandable concerns expressed on the travel of seasonal horticultural workers from Bulgaria to Ireland to work at our farm in north Dublin.
Over the past two weeks, we have shared information to demonstrate why the travel of these workers to Ireland was necessary and what steps we are taking to ensure we comply with all relevant guidelines to protect the welfare of our employees and communities.
Regrettably, there have been repeated misleading and speculative statements about our company and our employees which we feel the need to address to provide further assurances.
Our Need for Seasonal Workers
Keelings is a 100% Irish owned family business that has been growing and packing fruit and vegetables for the Irish market since the 1920s. We continue to operate from our farm at St. Margaret’s in north County Dublin.
The Irish business currently employs about 1,700 people in growing, harvesting, importing, and packing fresh produce and in sales, distribution and management. During the main Irish fruit and vegetable season from April to October, we employ temporary horticultural workers to harvest – about 900 over the season. This is demanding work requiring a high level of dexterity and product knowledge.
Up until the late 1990s, we recruited most of our seasonal workers locally, but over the last 20 years, there has been less interest from Irish people in this work. Most of our seasonal work has been done by experienced horticultural workers from other EU countries, often from Poland, Latvia, and now from Bulgaria.
This year we recruited in the usual manner over the winter and commenced our job offers at the end of October 2019 to ensure our Irish harvest.
In late March, to ascertain whether we could save the harvest with locally-recruited employees, we advertised in Ireland. Up to the 16th of April last, we had attracted 27 domestic applications, which fell significantly short of our labour needs.
Given the level of publicity over the last number of weeks, we have had additional applications and other offers of help. We are focused on processing current applicants & believe that we will have enough people available to us to save most of our fruit harvest. We do not plan to recruit further horticultural workers from outside Ireland in the coming months.
Keelings assists in finding accommodation for seasonal workers across a number of locations, and provides bus transportation to our farm at St. Margaret’s each working day. We offer a limited number of rooms at residences on our farm but accommodation is mainly sourced by arrangement with external providers. We work tirelessly to ensure this accommodation offers a comfortable living standard, complies with all regulations and is affordable. Currently cost varies per employee between €95 and €100 per week.
Typically, our seasonal colleagues are accommodated in apartment or house style accommodation with three or four bedrooms and two to three beds per room. However, during COVID-19, we have applied a maximum capacity of two people per room.
Some colleagues who came to Ireland at various other times are living in larger shared residential accommodation. They too will have a maximum of two people per bedroom during COVID-19 and they share spacious communal areas. On the 14th of March, the Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC) advised that people using communal facilities (e.g. recreational areas) should socially mix in groups of less than 50 persons. This advice was shared with all colleagues. On the 15th of April, the guidelines were updated by the HPSC to restrict communal areas social mixing to groups of less than 20 persons where social distancing can be observed. Again, all colleagues were advised of this update.
Internally in Keelings, to communicate well with our colleagues, we call people living under one roof a “family group”. So those living in individual apartments/houses or larger shared accommodations are known as family groups. In the case of larger family groups described above, we use a rostering system to ensure we follow HPSC guidelines regarding the use of larger communal areas.
These arrangements follow HSE and HPSC guidelines and will continue to be adjusted as these guidelines evolve.
All of our staff are subject to the same restrictions in public, in the interests of public health, that apply to all persons resident and working in Ireland, and are provided with training and information to ensure they understand the implications of these rules.
Restricted Movement and Health Screenings
On Monday the 13th of April, 189 seasonal workers flew on a charter flight from Sofia to Dublin. All had been health screened before they travelled to Sofia airport where they were temperature checked by officials before entry. Following their arrival at Dublin Airport they were taken straight to their housing on private buses, where in accordance with the HSE guidelines at that time, they commenced 14 days of Restricted Movement. During this time, they had groceries and essentials delivered to them and they were paid for this period. They were subject to further medical screening immediately before commencing work on the 29th of April.
Keelings complies fully with all Irish and EU employment law, including the Working Time Act and the National Minimum Wage Act. Seasonal horticultural workers working hours mostly vary between 30 and 45 per week. All horticultural workers employed by Keelings are paid the Irish minimum wage of €10.10 per hour, and additionally a bonus piece rate.
It is also worth noting that Keelings are part of the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) and are regularly audited against this standard.
We are proud of our relationship with our seasonal employees. Typically, seventy percent of our seasonal workforce ask to return to us from one year to the next and some have been coming to us for more than 10 years.
Keelings has worked tirelessly and will continue to do so, in compliance and co-operation with various Government agencies at all stages, to ensure continuity of Ireland’s essential food supply chain. We are proud to play our part in growing, harvesting and delivering fresh, healthy fruit and vegetables and our role as a major employer.
We are also proud of the enormous efforts and measures that we have put in place to adhere to the HSE and HPSC Guidelines.
Keelings appreciates, acknowledges, and unreservedly thanks the public for their concern. We really hope that this statement serves to clarify and reassure.