Northern Ireland

‘Significant disruption’ expected as port and meat factory workers walk out

Belfast Port is among those likely to face disruption as hundreds of workers across Northern Ireland start a five-day walkout over pay (Liam McBurney/PA)
Belfast Port is among those likely to face disruption as hundreds of workers across Northern Ireland start a five-day walkout over pay (Liam McBurney/PA) Belfast Port is among those likely to face disruption as hundreds of workers across Northern Ireland start a five-day walkout over pay (Liam McBurney/PA)

Major disruption is expected as hundreds of workers at ports and meat factories across Northern Ireland start a five-day walkout over pay.

The ports of Belfast, Larne and Warrenpoint as well as meat processing plants are being affected by the action, which started at midnight on Sunday.

Members of the Nipsa union, who work across the Veterinary Service Animal Health Group in the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (Daera), are taking part in the strike, which is planned to run until Friday.

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They are involved in checks on animals and some food products entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain.

Both green and red lanes at ports are expected to be affected, and it is anticipated that the strike may lead to ports either shutting down imports of some products or not carrying out checks required by the EU.

The Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) said the strike has come at the “worst possible time”, in the lead-up to Christmas.

UFU deputy president John McClenahan said members understand the reason for the strike action, but feel it is “a bit unfair” for farmers, who, he said, will “pick up a substantial cost”.

“It’s going to have a massive impact, and I suppose that’s one of the difficulties – we don’t at this stage fully understand what that impact is going to be,” he told the BBC.

“That level of uncertainty is probably the worst aspect of it – you can’t plan for what you don’t know.

“It’s the worst possible time – a lot of our factories are looking at that run-in to Christmas and they are increasing their capacity to satisfy that Christmas demand, and that starts now.

“It’s probably not coincidental that the strike has been called to coincide with that, but that only increases the pressures that it puts on our farmers.”

Nipsa said the action is in protest at a pay award of £552 – between 0.5% and 2% – given to all civil servants in Northern Ireland for 2022/23, at a time when inflation was above 10%.

General secretary Carmel Gates said public sector workers have seen their living standards crash.

She told the BBC that Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris has refused to engage with the union.

“The Northern Ireland economic sanctions have caused real suffering for ordinary working-class people,” she said.

“Public sector workers have seen their living standards crash.

“There is now a hard ‘pay border’ between workers in Northern Ireland and workers across the Irish Sea.

“I commend and thank these workers who are taking this action on behalf of their Civil Service colleagues but also on behalf of all public servants here.

“It is time for the Secretary of State to listen to the ordinary people, meet with unions and direct senior civil servants to engage in meaningful negotiations to end this dispute.”

A Daera spokesman said the department expects “significant disruption” to many of its veterinary and animal health functions, including delivery of official controls and other official activities across sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) inspection facilities, meat plants and field operations.

“If there is no resolution to the current pay dispute, the industrial action is likely to present issues in relation to animal health and welfare, public health and continuity of agri-food supply chains,” he said.

“The department very much hopes that a resolution to the current position on NI Civil Service pay can be found as soon as possible.”

Daera officials also said they cannot guarantee they will be able to provide their statutory services from October 30 to November 3 and would stress to operators of businesses that rely on these services to put in place continuity/emergency plans.