Thursday 5 December 2019

Up to 150 pharmaceutical staff ‘temporarily laid off’ following industrial dispute

James Daly and Brian Keating with fellow staff members on the picketline outside the SK Biotek plant in Swords
Picture; Gerry Mooney
James Daly and Brian Keating with fellow staff members on the picketline outside the SK Biotek plant in Swords Picture; Gerry Mooney

Gabija Gataveckaite

UP to 150 staff have been ‘temporarily laid off’ following an industrial dispute in a pharmaceutical company.

The staff at SK Biotek, are picketing outside of the company's Dublin plant for 24 hours a day, seven days a week as they are a ‘24/7 company’.

Trade unions Connect and SIPTU are involved in a dispute with the company over proposed changes that were brought in by SK Biotek since the site in Swords was taken over by the South Korean company last year.

The company employs 360 staff and up to 150 people claim they have been "locked out", including production, maintenance, warehouse and laboratory workers.

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The remainder of staff are working normally in the company, including those in quality control, IT, human resources and the research and development departments.

The company later presented a 22-page document which listed out changes it wants to make within the company, including roster changes, which posed “significant material change” to employee contracts.

According to the unions, implementing the changes is a breach of the five-year long Tupe agreement made when the company first took over last year.

A Tupe preserves employees' terms and conditions when a business is transferred to a new employer.

“An agreement is an agreement,” said SIPTU Shop Stewart at the company Brian Keating.

The staff have put forward two counter-proposals for the company and after negotiations broke down, they took place through the Workplace Relations Commission.

“Everybody has to compromise, give and take,” said Connect trade union shop steward James Daly.

The changes were due to come in on January 1 2020.

“We kind of knew time was ticking.

“The company said they would start implementing the programme, and they did,” he explained.

While management proposed to bring talks to the Labour Court with several conditions, the unions have refused to agree to pre-conditions listed by the company.

The unions are open to negotiations, but without additional pre-conditions from the company and for the company to “properly engage” with the unions.

Up to 150 employees were ‘temporarily laid off’ last Wednesday.

A spokesperson for SK Biotek said that employees were laid off to ensure “safety” on site.

“Due to the complexity of our manufacturing processes and requirement to ensure the safety of all people on site as well as the safety and stability of processes, this industrial action ultimately caused the company to effectively close down its core manufacturing operations on the 5th November,” he said.

“Employees have not been ‘locked out’ of the site, rather, they have been temporarily laid off (from 13th November) as a direct consequence of the industrial action shutting down manufacturing,” the spokesperson added.

Mr Keating has been working at the site for 40 years.

“The average service time of my colleagues is 25 years,” he told Independent.ie.

“It really affects me and I am very disappointed it has come to this, I never encountered this before,” he said.

Mr Daly said that the unions pushed for industrial action when an electrician was contracted out by the company earlier this week.

“Bringing on the contractor was a dealbreaker and a breaking point for us, a kick in the teeth,” he said.

SK Biotek said that when trade unions agree to re-engage with discussions through the WRC, the layoffs will be reversed.

“In this case, and with a cessation of industrial action, manufacturing could recommence, and layoffs reversed.

“The company wishes to discuss all outstanding issues with the assistance of the WRC and full dispute resolution facilities. Thus far, unions have not agreed to this proposed way forward,” the spokesperson added.

The unions maintain that they are open to negotiations without any additional pre-conditions and with the company “properly engaging”.

The issue was raised in the Dail earlier this week by Fianna Fáil TD Darragh O’Brien and Sinn Féin TD Louise O’Reilly.

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