The move by the meat industry giant, which is amongst the largest private sector employers in Northern Ireland, has caused “extreme” disappointment and worries for local poultry farmers.
The company has insisted that its decision is temporary as it pointed to “customer growth” and “labour market shortages” as the reasons behind the move.
A large proportion of the workforce at the Ballymena meat processing facility is not originally from Northern Ireland, with a high number from Eastern European countries in the EU.
Local SDLP councillor Eugene Reid, who is also the president of Ballymena Chamber of Commerce, met with Moy Park management yesterday and put the labour market difficulties down to a combination of coronavirus pandemic pressures and Brexit.
“The firm are suffering a number of challenges, including the recruiting of staff that many businesses are currently experiencing,” he said following the meeting.
“Pressures caused by Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic have made it difficult to attract the staff needed.
“The SDLP warned this would be one of the outworkings of Brexit and now the negative impact is being felt by our businesses.”
The Irish Times, meanwhile, has reported that “difficulties hiring staff under new UK immigration rules post-Brexit” coupled with rising energy prices has posed problems for Moy Park amid fears of a wider scaling back of operations by the firm, which is owned by the US giant Pilgrim’s Pride.
But Mr Allister, who represents the North Antrim constituency and backed the UK’s exit from the EU in the lead-up to the referendum, does not believe that Brexit is to blame for the worker shortage the company has cited.
“Yes, there’s a high preponderance of Eastern Europeans in Moy Park but the greater number of them have the right to stay because they’ve been here long enough, and exercised that right to stay,” he said.
“And there still is a huge number of Eastern Europeans in the Ballymena area, so I don’t buy into that at all.”
He continued: “I must say, the suddenness of the announcement, the apparent lack of consultation and the lack of rationale which attaches to it is all very concerning.
“I’m not aware of them reaching out at all to public representatives. To simply spring this without any rational explanation, I think, is quite wrong and quite a blow to the producers who provide for them in good faith only to be told ‘we don’t want you any more, we don’t want your produce’.”
Ulster Farmers’ Union deputy president William Irvine said: “Our members are extremely disappointed and worried about Moy Park pulling back on production here. It is the second time this has happened in less than three years and will create ongoing income pressures.
“Poultry producers have been hit hard in recent times and they’ve been exhausting every avenue to sustain their family farm businesses.”
Mr Reid, meanwhile, said: “There was great concern locally after Moy Park confirmed it was suspending the processing of live chickens at their plant in Ballymena. After making contact with the company I was reassured that the changes are due to demand and that the future of staff and this site are safe. While I understand any change to operations would cause concern, it’s important we don’t cause unnecessary distress to the large amount of staff who work there and businesses who rely on Moy Park.
“Moy Park is a huge employer and part of the community in north Antrim and I will continue to liaise with the company and staff going forward to ensure that staff are being kept informed throughout this process.”
A company spokesperson said: “As we respond to customer growth and labour market challenges, we are proposing to move team members from the live bird processing line to our further processing lines, enabling us to increase production at Ballymena.
“No jobs will be impacted by these changes however we are planning to temporarily pause live bird processing at Ballymena as we focus on seasonal and retail products. The live processing line will restart again in September.”