Noel Meade: labour ruling will have dire repercussions for racing
Trainer says yards will be ‘wiped out’ if compromise is not found over work hours
Trainer Noel Meade: “There’s a lot of talk about whether or not we’re in agriculture or not, and to be honest I think we need an identity of our own.” Photograph: Sheridan/Inpho
Former champion trainer Noel Meade has warned some trainers may be “wiped out” if a compromise isn’t found regarding racing’s controversial categorisation as a non-agricultural industry.
An amendment to the Industrial Relations Act in 2015 means racing industry employees are not entitled to the status of agricultural worker any more, with training yards not getting working hours exemptions.
The impact of that amendment is being mulled over throughout racing on the back of the Labour Court rejecting Ballydoyle Racing’s appeal against compliance notices issued by the Workplace Relations Commission after inspections at the famous yard in 2016.
Ballydoyle’s argument that it is exempt from the provisions of the Working Time Act because its staff are engaged in agricultural activity was rejected by the Labour Court, which is set to release its official report on Wednesday.
In what was widely seen as a test case, the Labour Court agreed with the WRC in maintaining that racing doesn’t meet the definition of agricultural activity.
The implications of that have been described by Horse Racing Ireland’s chief executive Brian Kavanagh as being of “very serious concern”, for trainers in particular.
On Sunday, Meade, who is chairman of the Irish Racehorse Trainers Association, echoed that concern and said the implications of the Labour Court decision could force trainers to leave the profession.
“It’s a very serious situation and we need to sit down and talk it out because there’s too much at stake for everybody just to be wiped out at the stroke of a pen,” he said.
Meade stressed how specialised the job stable staff do is and said it could not be judged as a nine-to-five role. He said he understood the Labour Court position in terms of a strict definition of agriculture but maintained that racing required its own categorisation in terms of work practices.
“There’s a lot of talk about whether or not we’re in agriculture or not, and to be honest I think we need an identity of our own.
“You can’t compare it to farming or breeding or anything like that. A farmer has 200 cows and one fella can milk them: if you have 50 horses you need 10 people to ride them out. And if you have 20 fellas working for you, they won’t all be good riders.
“It’s a specialised job. It’s a seven-days-a-week job, and the people who do that job, you can’t just let them off and bring somebody else in,” Meade said.
He added: “Being in agriculture would help but I’m not sure it’s the full answer. I can see where the Labour Court are coming from in saying we’re not agriculture. I can see their point. But we can’t be heaped into another category. We need a category of our own.
“We have to talk to the Minister, our politicians and the Labour Relations [Commission]. Everybody has to be talked to, to see if something can worked out. Because something will have to be worked out or else people will be wiped out.”
The possibility of Ballydoyle Racing appealing the Labour Court decision to the High Court hasn’t been discounted.
At an inspection of the Ballydoyle operation May of 2016, a WRC inspector found a number of breaches of the Working Time Act, including failure to provide sufficient breaks and rest periods for a number of grooms and exercise riders.
At the subsequent appeal, evidence was given of staff there working up to 19 hours in a day and up to 28 days in a row.
Champion trainer Aidan O’Brien gave evidence at that appeal about the importance of continuity in training racehorses and the strong relationship developed between an animal and its work rider and groom.
The Ballydoyle team also argued that the nature of training means grooms and work riders were involved in ensuring the continuity of production and that the rate of production could vary.
However, the Labour Court concluded that Ballydoyle had failed to demonstrate that workers, who were the subject of compliance notices, were directly involved in ensuring the continuity of production or the provision of services.