Industrial action could hit farmers’ grants and food exports from next month

Industrial action by Department of Agriculture staff could hit food exports and payments to farmers by the end of next month if issues at the heart of the dispute are not resolved, according to IMPACT trade union. Industrial action by over 600 technical agricultural officers is to start on Monday 20th January.

IMPACT says its campaign will begin with relatively mild action aimed at causing administrative inconvenience to management without impacting on farmers or the agriculture and food industry. But if there is no resolution it will quickly escalate to include actions that will delay grant payments to farmers and disrupt the export of cattle and other agricultural products. The impact of these stronger forms of action is likely to be felt in late February or early March.

The duties of the staff include inspections of farms, meat factories, dairy processors, marts, mills, laboratories and other facilities. Their role is central to food safety and compliance with EU and Irish regulations on the production, labelling, sale and export certification of agricultural produce including live animals.

The dispute was triggered by the agriculture department’s decision to refuse IMPACT members the chance to compete for assistant principal posts, in defiance of a new civil service-wide policy that allows all qualified staff to apply for vacancies that have been approved for filling. The union says this was the latest in a series of management decisions that are putting agricultural officers’ job security at risk, and says the dispute fundamentally centres on the issue of job security.

IMPACT national secretary Eamonn Donnelly said the issues could be addressed in ways that save taxpayers millions of euro, while maintaining excellent services to the farming community and agriculture sector. “The agriculture department has effectively collapsed the industrial relations process at a time when agricultural officer duties are diminishing because of rationalisation and reforms. Meanwhile, management persists in transferring their duties to higher paid civil servants and unnecessarily allocating inspection work to expensive external contractors. Both of these practices incur huge costs to taxpayers and the farming community while putting our members’ jobs at risk,” he said.

The union says departmental management has shelved an internal review, which shows costs of certain veterinary inspections could be more than halved by allocating work to agricultural officers. And it says another external review, commissioned by the department and published last August, outlined millions in potential savings that would accrue if agricultural officers were to undertake post-mortem meat inspections currently done by expensive external contractors. The report, by independent consultants Team BDS, found that this measure alone could deliver savings of €5.3 million each year.

Mr Donnelly said the workers had reluctantly decided to take industrial action as they believe management has left them with no other means of getting their issues highlighted and addressed. He said IMPACT was available for talks if there was serious engagement from management on the issues in dispute.