) irishtimes.com - Beef row: 3,000 workers temporarily laid off amid ongoing blockade - Tue Sep 10 12:21:37 IST 2019

Beef row: 3,000 workers temporarily laid off amid ongoing blockade

Colin Gleeson, Tim O'Brien, Harry McGee
Last Updated: Tuesday, September 10, 2019, 20:52

About 3,000 factory workers have been temporarily laid off due to the continuing blockade of meat plants by farmers protesting over beef prices, producers have said.

Meat Industry Ireland (MII) said on Tuesday that 3,000 employees had been temporarily laid off “due to the continuing illegal blockades of factories and intimidation of staff and suppliers by protestors”.

The group which represents processors said decisions to cease processing operations had “not been taken lightly” but that companies “were forced to act” due to the “unwillingness of protestors to stop their illegal blockades”.

It said 80 per cent of overall processing capacity has now closed, and further closures and layoffs “are likely” in coming days.

“It is not just the direct employees that will be affected by the ongoing crisis, as hundreds of indirect jobs will be impacted as ancillary businesses including hauliers will be heavily impacted by these closures,” it said.

“The Minister for Agriculture has tried to get all parties around the table to reach a settlement, and beef processors have always been open to engage in that process, but not whilst their plants are being illegally blockaded.”

The the grassroots organisation behind this summer’s pickets has said rural Ireland is facing “huge” job losses stemming from the beef crisis if the current impasse between farmers and processors is not resolved soon.

Beef Plan Movement co-founder Eamon Corley was speaking after the Meat Industry Ireland annoucenemt.

Mr Corley said farmers are being “starved out” by processors and that the 3,000 job losses would be dwarfed when the impact of the dispute trickles down to other sectors.

“The wider rural economy depends on farming,” he said. “All those jobs will be lost if a solution isn’t found. I sympathise with workers being laid off but the reality is that farmers are effectively laid off as well because they are losing so much money.

“The people we buy our meal off, the people who we buy our veterinary medicines from, all those people in rural Ireland will be laid off if a solution isn’t found that is sustainable.”

He added: “There are 80,000 beef farmers. It’ll be a far wider spectrum than the 3,000 jobs being talked about in the beef industry. It will be huge. One farmer is worth four or five jobs in their local economy. If you multiply that by 80,000 farmers you’re looking at a quarter of a million job losses in theory.

“The farmers on the picket line think they have nothing to lose. The retailers and the factory owners need to make an effort to find a workable solution. Trying to starve farmers out is not a solution.”

MII also acknowledged that “ancillary businesses” including haulage firms would be “heavily impacted” by the dispute. About 90 per cent of Irish beef is exported, and the State’s processing sector is now operating at around 20 per cent capacity.

While Irish Road Haulage Association chief executive Verona Murphy said the group had received “no complaints of impact at this time” from its members, but that concerns have been raised about the effect on exporters.

Talks to resolve the crisis did not go ahead on Monday after MII suspended its involvement due to the ongoing blockades, and Mr Corley said he was unaware of any plan to get parties back to the table.

“It looks to be at a stalemate at the moment. The factories are laying off workers and the protests are still there. There doesn’t look to be anything positive on the horizon.”

Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed said there were “obvious” consequences for retail supplies of beef in an industry where the vast majority of processed beef is exported.

He was speaking as the head of MII declined to rule out further court injunctions against protesters picketing around 20 processing plants. He also criticised processors for refusing to meet picketing beef farmers since the dispute broke out.

“We cannot have a situation where their refusal to engage effectively closes down the entire industry,” he said, adding that the talks between the sides could not wait until the last protester has been hauled before the courts.

“It has to happen now.”

With farm organisations playing no role in the dispute, each picket outside was an “independent republic” with the protesters in many cases having different demands, the Minister added.

Meat processors suspended legal moves against the protesters to allow talks take place.

Talks between farmers and processors had been due to start on Monday night but were cancelled after meat processors said they would not negotiate while protests continued at their gates.

Mr Creed said the current “toxic relationship” between farmers and the processors could not continue.

Asked if he was concerned that international beef contracts could be lost because of the dispute, Mr Creed said, the industry had not supplied him with that level of detail.

However, he said there were “obvious” consequences for retail supplies of beef in an industry where the vast majority of processed beef is exported.

The main issue for the protesting farmers is the price they are paid for their beef and the so-called 30-month limit.

However, the price issue cannot be discussed directly in the talks due to the fear of flouting competition law.