Irish workers go on hunger strike over unfair dismissals

Two workers at the Green Isle Foods factory in Ireland have gone on hunger strike in a dispute over unfair dismissals. They have been striking for six months.

Two striking workers at the Green Isle Foods factory in Ireland have gone on hunger strike in a dispute over unfair dismissals.

The men, who are members of the Technical Engineering and Electrical Union, have been on strike for six months over the unfair dismissal of three fellow workers.

The president of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, Jack O’Connor, and general secretary David Begg, both spoke at a rally in support of the Green Isle Foods workers and hunger strikers in Naas on Saturday. The rally was organised by the Kildare Council of Trade Unions.

Shop steward Jim Wyse is entering the third week on hunger strike and John Guinan, a former Offaly All-Ireland footballer, is in his second week. A third TEEU member will join the hunger strike tomorrow if the dispute is not resolved in the meantime.

The hunger strikers took this momentous step after being on the picket line for six months, through one of the worst winters in living memory, and after the company rebuffed the efforts of the Labour Relations Commission, the National Implementation Body and the Labour Court to resolve the dispute.

The only independent body to examine the merits of the dispute is the Labour Court. It found the dismissals to be unfair and recommended that the men be reinstated and fully reimbursed for lost wages, or be paid a total of €160,000 in compensation for the loss of their jobs.

A number of opposition political leaders have expressed their support for the strikers.

The background to the dispute is the Irish government’s response to the economic crisis. Having cut welfare payments, as well as public sector pay, the government has actively promoted pay cuts in the private sector, and is looking to reduce the minimum wage.

Green Isle Foods is a division of the British conglomerate Northern Foods, which has a turnover of more than €1 billion and in its latest annual report profits were up 8.9% to £53 million.

Amongst its best known brands are Goodfellas and San Marco pizzas, and Green Isle vegetables. It also produces a number of ‘own brand’ products for supermarket chains in Britain. Its total workforce in Britain and Ireland is approximately 20,000.

Much of the British workforce is organised in a number of trade unions, including Unite and the GMB. The TEEU’s site is here, and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions has a major focus on the dispute here.

British trade unionists, especially those in unions represented at Northern Foods, will want to express their solidarity with the strikers and hunger strikers, while politicians here should take Northern Foods to task for the refusal of its Irish subsidiary to abide by the law, and reinstate the sacked workers.

7 Responses to “Irish workers go on hunger strike over unfair dismissals”

  1. Michael Burke

    Here is an interview with the hunger strikers, and film of strong support for them

    http://vimeo.com/9799487

    According to the speeches at the rally here, scabs have come in from England

    http://www.youtube.com/watch#playnext=1&playnext_from=TL&videos=15oDsJKv-RM&v=JxroAO9cdbM

  2. Aoife

    “The background to the dispute is the Irish government’s response to the economic crisis. Having cut welfare payments, as well as public sector pay, the government has actively promoted pay cuts in the private sector, and is looking to reduce the minimum wage.”

    No its not. The background to the dispute is the employees receiving emails with ‘adult material’ in them and being dismissed for that reason. The union has accepted that the employees received these emails but states that they were unsolicited. The Union claims that the real reason for the dismissal is the inadvertent discovery by an employee of restructuring plans.

    There is also mediation occurring with the local Labour Party TD, Jack Wall, acting as a mediator.

    Its doesn’t help anyone on the left if articles are written about such disputes which do not reveal the actual background and are vague as to the reasons for the dispute

  3. Michael Burke

    [Press statement by TEEU]

    “February 28th, 2010,

    A number of media outlets persist in describing the dispute between the Technical Engineering and Electrical Union and Green Isle Foods in Naas as being about inappropriate emails.

    This is not the case.

    The dispute is over the unfair dismissal of three workers and union recognition.

    The Labour Court, which has adjudicated on the dispute and which heard evidence from the TEEU and from IBEC on behalf of Green Isle Foods, found that the dismissals were unjustified. It recommended the immediate return to work of the TEEU members, no victimisation and compensation for the three dismissed men totalling €180,000 if the company was not prepared to re-employ them.

    The persistent misrepresentation of the dispute is extremely damaging to the TEEU members on strike and particularly distressing to the hunger strikers, who did not access inappropriate material.”

  4. Aoife

    Michael,
    If you are writing about a particular issue, especially on a widely read blog such as this you have a responsibility to report things in an accurate manner. Your original post makes no reference to the origins of the dispute and an uninformed reader would probably take the view that the dispute related to pay cuts, given your reference to the ‘background of the dispute being the irish Government’s response to the economic crisis’ etc.

    That is simply not the case and is misleading and does nothing to forward the issue at hand.

    And posting the statement from the TEEU verbatim doesn’t do much to forward the issue either (unless you are an official spokesperson for the TEEU and if so, that should be disclosed). The TEEU say on one hand that the dispute is nothing to do with inappropriate emails but then say that it is about unfair dismissal and union recognition. Since the workers were dismissed by reason of the emails, it has everything to do with them. The Labour Court has found in favour of the workers (though the TEEU has not released the actual finding of the Labour Court so nobody knows on what grounds the employees won).

    The statement also doesn’t reveal that one of the reasons that the employees do not want to return to work is that they have demanded that their Union represent them in any negotiations over the return to employment. Green Isle is not a unionised workplace, though many of their employees are union members. As I am sure you are aware, since you’re writing about an Irish dispute, there is no mandatory recognition of unions in Ireland and while employees are free to join any union that they so wish, an employer is under no legal obligation to recognise that union or to allow that union represent the employee in any workplace discussions.

    A blog post raising those issues and dealing with the nuances of the situation could have been interesting. However, your post amounts to worker=good, employer=bad.

  5. Michael Burke

    Aoife

    The Labour Court is an independent body. It has ruled that the sackings were unfair and recommended reinstatement, which Green Isle has refused to comply with and brought in scab labour. It has rejected your/Green Isle’s assertions as to the reasons for the dispute, and found in favour of the strikers and their union. They in turn have the backing of the leadership of the Irish trade union movement as a whole.

    No vagueness, just the truth.

  6. Aoife

    First of all, it is welcome that the dispute has now been resolved. It is very unfortunate that the employees felt that hunger strike was their only option.

    I am well aware what the Labour Court is and what its powers are under the Industrial Relations Act 1990 and other pieces of legislation. I’m sure you are also aware that the Labour Court is a body for the determination of collective bargaining issues in unionised workplaces. It is not the body that has the power to determine individual dismissal complaints. In accordance with the Unfair Dismissals Act, 1977 the Employment Appeals Tribunal is the appropriate body that can issue legally binding determinations on the question of unfair dismissals.

    It now transpires that while the Labour Court found in favour of the employees, it did so in circumstances where the employer was not represented and evidence was only heard from one side. Green Isle is not a unionised workplace and therefore the decision of the Labour Court is not binding on them in these circumstances.

    Now you can argue the rights and wrongs of Green Isle refusing to recognise the Union but as things stand the Union is not recognised and therefore the appropriate tribunal to determine the dismissal question was the EAT. Had the employees taken a case to the EAT they would have obtained a binding and legally enforceable decision and much of this dispute could have been avoided.

    It is a pity that the Union chose to put their members at risk by not pursuing the correct legal avenue. Their members should never have been put in the position of having to go on hunger strike to resolve the issue

    However, those points deal with the substance of the dispute which was not my motivation for first commenting. You seem to have missed my point, which was not to raise anything to do with the substance of the issue but was instead to comment on the inaccurate and misleading manner in which you reported the dispute. This blog prides itself on being ‘evidence based’ and your post was anything but. Seeking to tie the dispute to the widespread and generalised problems currently occurring within the Irish economy was downright misleading. Indicating that the finding of the Labour Court was the be all and end all without placing that decision in the factual context in which it was reached was also misleading.

    This was a nuanced and complex dispute and your reporting of it did nothing to promote the rights of the workers at the centre of the dispute, which ought to have been the primary concern

  7. Michael Burke

    The dispute has been resolved but the third hungerstriker has had his work visa revoked and he and his family, some of whom were born in Ireland, are threatened with deportation. John Retco has worked in Ireland for 8 years and applied for naturalisation 2 years ago.

    The union has a petition against deportation here
    http://www.teeu.ie/petition.asp

    ICTU General Secretary David Begg and TEEU General Secretary Designate Eamon Devoy have written to the Naturalisation and Immigration Service seeking a stay on the deportation and the Migrant Rights Centre has also taken up the cause of the Rectos.

    The Green Isle slanders against the workers were not repeated in submissions to the Labour Court. Green Isle chose not to attend the hearings and the Labour Court found in their favour, ruling that they should be reinstated or paid €180,000 in compensation. The Labour Court is both an independent and competent body in the legal sense, otherwise it would not have heard the case.

    Both the slanders and the misrepresentation of the Labour Court’s competence orginated with Green Isle. Before they were repeated here, many Irish media outlets which had also repeated them withdrew them, e.g., the Irish Independent has taken down from the web its article on allegations of porn and Green Isle workers.

    http://www.independent.ie/national-news/gardai-given-porn-images-at-centre-of-green-isle-row-2084145.html

    Readers can draw their own conclusions as to why you felt compelled to repeat them.

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