Union tables issues in agriculture dispute

IMPACT has tabled a comprehensive list of the issues that caused industrial action in the agriculture sector, which has now moved into its second week. The initiative, which follows a meeting with Department of Agriculture officials last Wednesday, is expected to form the basis of a further meeting later this week.

Last week, IMPACT national secretary Eamonn Donnelly told management the union would not suspend its relatively low-level industrial action at this stage. Now, in his letter to the department, Donnelly reiterates that the industrial action will be escalated if there is no resolution. “We are in a very difficult and dangerous situation and I would strongly urge that you would not simply respond in the traditional civil service way,” he wrote.

He said IMPACT was willing to engage with a third party on the issues, but only once the department clearly understood the issues and demonstrated that it was “prepared to deal with them in a serious way.”

Among the issues listed in the letter are the department’s failure to implement reports that would generate savings by optimising the skills and resources of agricultural officer grades, and its attempts to “decimate” the numbers in the grades. The union called for discussions on rebuilding the grading structure, meaningful roles for agriculture officers, and the possibility of a new grade to “bridge the huge gap in career opportunities.” It demanded a changed culture towards technical staff and a rebuilding of trust in the “collapsed” industrial relations system.

The current industrial action, by over 600 Department of Agriculture technical staff, started last Monday (20th January). Its initial aim is to cause administrative inconvenience to management without impacting on farmers or the 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.

IMPACT says the workers have fully cooperated with extensive reforms, including the closure of 42 local offices (down from 58 to 16), which have delivered €30 million in savings. Their dispute centres on management’s subsequent failure to sustain and expand their duties in line with independent reports – commissioned by the Department – which say further substantial savings could be delivered if technical staff took on some of the inspection duties currently allocated to higher paid civil servants and expensive external contractors. The union says management’s failure to implement the reforms costs taxpayers and farming communities millions of euro, while putting technical jobs at risk. It says management has refused meaningful engagement on this and other issues.

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.