Agriculture Minister Michelle McIlveen and Economy Minister Simon have been urged to intervene and help save 70 jobs that are under threat at a Co Down creamery.
Staff were informed on Tuesday evening that jobs at the former Fane Valley-owned facility in Banbridge were at risk as new owners Lakeland Dairies confirmed a switch to a seasonal operation from September.
Lakeland is hoping the proposed temporary lay-offs and potential redundancies can be achieved on a voluntary basis, with the option of redeployment also being considered
This comes as a major blow to staff, particularly as many believed the takeover by Lakeland three months ago had secured the future of the workforce at the Rathfriland Road site.
DUP MLA Jo-Anne Dobson said the minsters of agriculture and economy have a ‘responsibility and a duty’ to intervene on behalf of the 70 staff whose jobs are at risk, and went on to describe the situation faced by staff as ‘heart-breaking’.
The Upper Bann MLA has written to Michael Hanley, Chief Executive of Creamery owners Lakeland Dairies, Agriculture Minister Michelle McIlveen and Economy Minister Simon Hamilton following contact from distressed employees and their families.
Mrs Dobson said: “I have spoken directly with many of the employees who have been affected by this decision and it is very clear that not only has this been handled disgracefully it will also result in almost immediate financial implications for staff and their families.
“I understand that staff were told on Tuesday evening that there would be no further drying at the plant and whilst management discussed production beginning again in March, this could not be guaranteed.
“With jobs being put at risk in this way this really calls into question the Executive strategy towards our largest employer the agri-food industry. With constant talk of new job growth in the sector through ‘Going for Growth’ we now have jobs threatened in this way in the dairy industry.
“It is unfortunate that the company chose not to consult with local elected representatives before this decision was taken, resulting in far-reaching consequences for its staff.”
Local UUP Councillor Glenn Barr said he believed staff had been ‘forced into an impossible position’ and committed to working with them throughout this process.
He said: “At present it is unclear as to the job losses and redundancy packages available from Lakeland Dairies and we need to do all that we can to assist, provide information and make those affected aware of their employment rights.”
Concluding Mrs Dobson said: “The creamery has been a consistent and major employer in Banbridge for many decades at its Rathfriland Road site and whilst the focus at present is rightly on the 70 jobs most directly affected there will be others jobs which hang in the balance if it were to close.”
A statement issued by Lakeland Dairies confirmed the company is consulting with staff on the implementation of the changes and will seek to minimise the impact of this development as much as possible.
The statement went on: “The move to seasonal processing is a common feature of the dairy industry and is already practiced in Lakeland Dairies with the seasonal operation of a Milk Powder plant in Lough Egish (in County Monaghan) and a Casein plant in Killeshandra (County Cavan).
“Global dairy markets have continued to be very challenging and farmers’ incomes and milk prices have reduced severely due to market volatility.
“Lakeland Dairies processes over 1 billion litres of milk annually and it needs to allocate this milk as flexibly and profitably as possible to different sites and into different product areas which are in the highest market demand, to yield the highest milk price at different times throughout the year.”
The statement went on to explain that in recent years, the Banbridge site had minimum investment made in the processing capability of the plant, and consequently it is currently only capable of making products for which there is limited market demand at certain times of the year.
The statement continued: “A significant investment would be required to upgrade technology and processing capability to enable products with the specification and quality required by dairy markets across the world, but this is not feasible. As a result the move to seasonal processing is appropriate at this time.
“It is very regrettable that this necessary development will affect staff at Banbridge. The co-operative will seek to implement the proposed temporary lay-offs and any potential redundancies on a voluntary basis and will also explore redeployment wherever possible.”