More than 70 jobs have been placed ‘at risk’ at a Banbridge milk processing plant with plans to move to seasonal production.
Staff at the Armaghdown Creamery, whish employs 72 people, were told the news on Wednesday night.
The new work pattern will see it only processing milk between spring and autumn. The move will take effect in September.
Lakeland Dairies, who bought the plant from Fane Valley in May, said a lack of investment in previous years had left it capable of only making products for which there was limited demand at certain times of the year.
A spokesman said the development would affect staff at Banbridge.
The company would try to ‘implement the proposed temporary lay-offs and potential redundancies on a voluntary basis’, he said and ‘potential redeployment’ would be explored.
Lakeland said other plants in the group also worked on a seasonal basis.
Trade union SIPTU condemned the decision.
SIPTU Sector Organiser, Martin O’Rourke, said: “This will result in a large number of redundancies and only six months work a year for the vast majority of the remaining staff.
“The workers were extremely angered and disappointed that the media was informed of these plans before their SIPTU representatives had an opportunity to meet with the company to question them.”
Local MLA Jo-Anne Dobson said the Minsters of Agriculture and Economy have a ‘responsibility and a duty’ to intervene on behalf of the ‘70 Banbridge jobs which were placed at risk’.
She and party colleague Councillor Glenn Barr described the situation faced by staff as ‘heart-breaking’.
The Upper Bann MLA has written to Michael Hanley, Chief Executive of Lakeland Dairies, Agriculture Minister Michelle McIlveen and Economy Minister Simon Hamilton following contact from distressed employees and their families.
Mrs Dobson said: “This announcement from management has come as a body blow to staff who are going through a difficult and uncertain time.
“Just three months ago the staff at the creamery had been told that their jobs were secure when Lakeland purchased the facility from Fane Valley – this announcement has pulled the rug out from underneath them.
“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.”
Cllr Barr said: “Staff have been forced into an impossible position and we will be working alongside them throughout this process.
“On Wednesday I instigated the Councils response, suggesting that multi-agency workshops be provided to assist the staff who I know have very many unanswered questions.
“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: “I have written to both the Stormont Agriculture and Economy Ministers to request that they personally intervene with the company on behalf of the employees and also to involve the Labour Relations Agency given how quickly this decision will affect staff.
“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.”