Industrial action underway at the Department of Agriculture

Union warns dispute could affect farmers’ payments

Mon, Jan 20, 2014, 13:07

More than 600 Department of Agriculture technical staff began industrial action this morning in a move which their union Impact said could affect food exports and payments to farmers.

A Department of Agriculture spokeswoman said the department “will work with Impact within the appropriate industrial relations mechanisms to bring about an early resolution to this dispute”.

The union said the action would begin with measures aimed at causing 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,” it said in a statement. “The impact of these stronger forms of action is likely to be felt in late February or early March.”

The staff involved in the dispute are agricultural officers whose duties include inspections of farms, meat factories, dairy processors, marts and other premises to ensure that EU and Irish regulations are being adhered to in areas such as food safety.

Impact national secretary Eamonn Donnelly said the action was being taken because agricultural officers’ duties were being taken away due to rationalisation and management had failed to engage in a meaningful way with the union. “The agriculture department has effectively collapsed the industrial relations process at a time when agricultural officer duties are diminishing because of rationalisation and reforms,” he said. “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 workers had fully co-operated with extensive reforms, including the closure of 42 local offices which delivered €30 million in savings. Independent reports, commissioned by the Department, had found that substantial savings could be delivered if technical staff took on some of the inspection duties currently allocated to higher paid civil servants and external contractors but Mr Donnelly said management had refused to engage in the process.

He said one internal review showed that costs of certain veterinary inspections could be more than halved by allocating the work to agricultural officers. Another review outlined millions in potential savings if technical staff were to undertake post-mortem meat inspections currently done by external contractors.

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 addressed. He said the union was available for talks if there was serious engagement from management on the issues in dispute.