First of four 24-hour strikes begin at Kerry Ingredients

Dónal Nolan

290 workers at the Kerry Ingredients plant in Listowel were poised to mount the first of four planned 24-hour work stoppages from 10pm on Tuesday.

There appeared little hope of a last-minute breakthrough - as The Kerryman went to press - in a dispute over pay surrounding the introduction of new 'SAP' computer system to manage production at the plant into the future.

The dispute centres on the introduction of the system coinciding with a new pay deal that was to have been hammered out between Kerry Group and SIPTU in 2015.

Kerry Group believes the new system constitutes a 'normal ongoing change' to operations at the plant, insisting it would not place greater demands or result in any reduction of the workforce - according to Labour Court documentation.

The Labour Court recommended a pay rise of 2.5 per cent p/a for the period 2015 - 2018 in a finding earlier this year. Kerry Group has agreed to abide by these recommendations in what would amount to a ten per cent pay rise over the period; regarded as above the industrial average for the grade and sector.

But the 290 general operators represented by SIPTU have rejected the recommendation over the new system now coming into effect in Listowel. Workers already trained in it believe it does not represent 'normal' change but imposes greater demand on them, a spokesperson for SIPTU said.

To that end the 290 general operating staff are seeking a pay rise per annum of 3.5 per cent for the period of the deal 2015 - 2018, amounting to a rise of 14 per cent over the four year.

Kerry Group informed the staff that its willingness to abide by the 2.5 per cent rise was as far as the company could possibly go, resulting in the deadlock that saw workers balloting last month for industrial action.

The computer system, which has been rolled out successfully at other Kerry Group-operated plants with little if any unrest, was at the centre of a 'conciliation conference' under the Work Relations Commission earlier this year that failed to achieve agreement, prompting the matter to be referred to the Labour Court on January 20.

The Court ultimately recommended that the union accept the terms of the pay deal on the basis the introduction of the new system constitutes normal ongoing change and that Kerry Group had asserted 'no threat to employment or earnings arises' from its implementation.

Workers overwhelmingly rejected this, balloting by up to 90 per cent in favour of both industrial action and all-out strike action (Tuesday's 24-hour strike constitutes industrial action rather than full strike).

"Workers have already accepted many changes over the years but they feel SAP is asking more than should be asked and balloted by 90 per cent in favour of the industrial action," SIPTU industrial organiser John Cooney told The Kerryman.