Union and RHI pellet-making firm trade blows over pay ... and chocolate

A Co Fermanagh firm which makes wood pellets for RHI boilers has stressed its commitment to worker safety, as a possible strike looms.

Wednesday, 21st July 2021, 6:00 am
Updated Wednesday, 21st July 2021, 8:58 am
Wood pellets aflame

Staff at Balcas are said to have been angered by the company’s stance on pay negotiations – with much of the friction centring on a demand for a special Covid payment for staff who have continued working right through the pandemic.

The sawmill company is based south of Ballinamallard and dates back to 1961, and is understood to have a long-standing recognition agreement with Unite which represents most of the roughly 180-strong labour force.

The tension between workers and management burst out into the open yesterday when Unite issued a press release, saying staff had voted “to initiate a strike ballot”.

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‘WE WILL NOT BE DISRESPECTED’

Gareth Scott, regional officer for Unite, said there had been a “failure of bosses to recognise their efforts in working throughout the Covid lockdown”.

The work at Balcas was deemed too important to stop during lockdown, since it supplies fuel to care homes and hospital, among others.

Although many of its wood pellets end up in furnaces linked to the shambolic RHI system, Balcas of course had no hand in drawing up or managing the inept scheme.

Mr Scott said: “Balcas workers were among the few who were told they had to continue working throughout the Covid lockdown as their work was deemed essential.

“The decision to continue full-scale production throughout the lockdown exposed the workers to elevated risk with many falling ill during Covid outbreaks.”
Shop stewards had wanted a special payment “for the workers’ efforts and sacrifice”.

But instead of making such a one-off bonus payment, the company believes this bonus is reflected in its existing three-year pay agreement, according to Unite.

Mr Scott added that “the last straw was when management presented employees with a special ‘Covid chocolate’ bar; the anger on the shopfloor is palpable”.

He added: “The Balcas workforce has the full backing of our union, both locally and nationally, in their fight for basic decency and respect.

“We have a strike pay fund of £40 million with strike pay guaranteed these workers throughout any stoppage. Our members don’t want to have to strike but they won’t be disrespected this way.”

FIRM STRESSES SAFETY AND JOB-RETENTION EFFORTS:

Balcas hit back, saying it has worked hard to “safeguard employment for our staff and maintain our business viability into the future; we achieved this at a time when other businesses were laying staff off”.

Its company statement said: “We are extremely grateful to everyone who played their part. Balcas mitigated risk by immediately introducing additional health and safety measures, the effectiveness of which is reflected in the extremely low number of cases in the business over the course of the pandemic.

“This included investing over £200,000 to date throughout its operations in initiatives such as sanitising, fogging, temperature scanning, additional canteens, additional bathrooms, modified shift times and social distancing.

“In addition, we undertook a wide-ranging pay review and discussions were ongoing during the period August 2020 – January 2021. With the help of external consultants, Balcas engaged in pay negotiations with Unite and our internal Employee Forum to agree an extensive three year pay deal effective from January 2021.

“We believe that this pay deal was generous and it will result in a cost of circa £2 million to the company over the three years of the agreement.

“We are disappointed that Unite has chosen to bypass the company’s established internal collective negotiation arrangements by issuing a press release in circumstances where we had offered to meet to discuss this request for a Covid payment further. A date for this meeting has been agreed.”

And when it comes to the chocolate bars, the firm said: “The chocolate to which you refer was an initiative by our parent company SHV, who distributed chocolate bars to each of its 51,600 employees globally.”

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