Staff within DAERA’s veterinary service could strike again in the coming weeks if an ongoing pay dispute is not resolved, the head of a civil service trade union has warned.
A five-day strike by department vets and meat inspectors this week has caused huge disruption to meat processing.
“If they don’t offer us something that can resolve it, then you could see more action between now and Christmas,” said Carmel Gates from the NI Public Service Alliance (NIPSA).
Speaking to the Irish Farmers Journal, Gates stopped short of apologising for the impact that the strike is having on farmers but said she “regrets unintended collateral damage”.
“When you have got people who provide a vital service, it is impossible for them to withdraw their service and not impact on somebody,” she said.
The dispute surrounds a £552 pay award which was offered to all NI civil servants in January 2023.
“Their pay has taken a cut, given that inflation rose in double figures. The wages are now so uncompetitive, they can’t attract staff,” Gates said.
According to NIPSA, there are approximately 60 vacancies for vets within DAERA and, across all types of staff in the veterinary service, there are around 170 empty posts.
“Vets are finding it difficult to get time off on leave and they are over-stretched. Staff are leaving [DAERA] to work as public service vets in the Republic [of Ireland] because they pay so much more and the workload is so much less,” Gates said.
However, the NIPSA general secretary makes clear that this ongoing pay dispute is about the NI civil service as a whole, and not just department vets and meat inspectors working within DAERA.
“As a trade union, we want to use our most effective group to make our message to the [NI] Secretary of State [Chris Heaton-Harris],” she said.
As of Tuesday, Gates said she had “received nothing official” from Heaton-Harris or his team about taking steps to end the strike.
“What I would expect is that he would give civil servants the authority to begin discussions [with union representatives] and consider the budget that might be necessary to allow those discussions to happen,” she said.
The timing of this week’s strike has been heavily criticised by local farmers and meat factories, given that it will disrupt processing for several weeks during the busy pre-Christmas period.
In response, Gates said the current pay dispute has been ongoing since January 2023 and NIPSA members voted on the exact timing of the industrial action after they agreed to have a week-long strike.
“They chose the mid-term Hallowe’en break. The reason they chose it is because they are finding it so difficult to get leave, they wanted that time with their families. It wasn’t a cynical decision to do most harm,” she maintained.
She also confirmed that all DAERA staff who join the strike this week are receiving a subsidised pay package from NIPSA.
Gates said payments were being made because the industrial action is deemed “selective strike action” as one group of workers is striking on behalf of the wider civil service.
Although the beef and lamb kill ground to a halt this week, it appears DAERA were able to re-deploy enough staff from elsewhere to keep poultry and pork processing operational.
Gates revealed that NIPSA were prepared to send some members off picket lines and back to work to keep poultry and pig factories running due to animal welfare concerns.
“The fact that they haven’t come back to us as of yet would indicate to me that they have enough [staff] for those plants to run,” she said.