Thousands of jobs in the meat industry could be lost due to the ongoing impasse between protesting farmers and processors.
Meat Industry Ireland, representing processors, said about 3,000 workers at 20 plants around the country have already been temporarily laid off, because picket lines have shut production by preventing cattle from coming onto the factory floor.
Among those affected are about 300 Dawn Meats workers in Grannagh, outside Waterford City, who were called into a meeting yesterday afternoon to be told they have been temporarily laid off.
In seeking an injunction against protesters two weeks ago, Dawn Meats had told the High Court that the pickets were resulting in daily loss of turnover of €1.5m.
“Decisions to cease processing operations have not been taken lightly but in the face of the unwillingness of protesters to stop their illegal blockades, companies were forced to act,” Meat Industry Ireland said in a statement last night.
Some 80% of overall processing capacity has now closed, and further closures and layoffs are likely in coming days.
Agriculture Minister Michael Creed has appealed to Meat Industry Ireland to return to talks aimed at resolving the impasse between farmers, the industry, and retailers over the price paid for cattle.
However, he suggested that Meat Industry Ireland’s demand that protesters stand down before talks can resume poses a difficulty given the grassroots nature of the demonstrations, which are not organised by established farming organisations.
“Standard operating procedures in terms of normal industrial relations, standing down pickets, getting into talks don’t apply,” said Mr Creed.
He said he would make the direct point to Meat Industry Ireland that “we cannot have a situation where their refusal to engage effectively closes down the entire industry”.
“I would appeal to them, and to all parties now to reflect, and particularly to reflect on the fact that any unilateral action now has the capacity not to add to the possibility of a solution, but actually to exacerbate the difficulties we face,” said Mr Creed.
“I would appeal to particularly Meat Industry Ireland, to reflect on that matter and on the fact that direct engagement with their customers is a business imperative in any business, and it is not after the last man standing at the picket line has been hauled before the courts that that can happen. It has to happen now.”
However, Meat Industry Ireland said “negotiating while illegal and threatening behaviour is ongoing is not compatible with negotiation in good faith”.
“We need to be very clear that it is not the industry that has caused the closedown, or that is forcing the closedown now,” director Cormac Healy told RTÉ’s News at One.
“It is illegal blockading that has been going on for a good four weeks of the last six weeks at this stage that is responsible for it, the industry has shown that it’s willing to talk.
“It is only three weeks ago that we engaged in extensive discussions with the farm bodies, we got to a consensus agreement, but then the Beef Plan pulled out of that.”
However, Mr Healy conceded that “trying to figure out who represents who and who can deliver something that removes protesters from the blockades is one of the fundamental difficulties here”.
While picket lines were originally established by the Beef Plan Movement, their involvement in demonstrations officially ended when talks were established last month.
Protests not affiliated with the Beef Plan have continued, and another group called Independent Farmers of Ireland yesterday published an open letter in which it made a number of demands of the Minister for Agriculture, Bord Bia, and Teagasc.