MHS in talks to avert 72 hour strike action

Meat Hygiene Service chief executive Steve McGrath is trying to broker a deal which will avert a 72 hour industrial walkout out by meat inspectors next Tuesday.

McGrath revealed that on hearing the date of the walkout he had immediately requested a meeting with Unison and had constructive talks with the union in York yesterday.

He also pointed that the strike might not necessarily take place. "I firmly believe that the Meat Hygiene Service and Unison can work out a deal," he told MTJ.

However, in the event the walkout does take place McGrath said his key priorities would be public health, animal health and welfare. "I want to reassure farmers, processors and retailers we will do what we can to minimise the impact of any disruption to meat inspection service with the contingency plans we have"

Meat hygiene inspectors voted last week two to one in favour of strike action in a dispute over cuts to overtime payments and the introduction of a 'work anytime' system.

They rejected the 8% pay award proposed by MHS for the two years 2007-2008 and the £1,000 one off payment for a change in their working terms and conditions.

McGrath also insists that the Unison ballot was carried on a out-of-date proposal. But Simon Watson, national officer for Unison, disagrees. He told MTJ that the two-year 8% pay increase deal was not subject to any changes in working terms and conditions. McGrath said the MHS believed it would take time to implement changes and so the pay deal was linked to a change in working terms and conditions which was required for the modernisation of meat inspection services. "We also offered a £1,000 one-off implementation payment to staff as we felt it was appropriate."

McGrath rejected criticism that meat inspectors would see a substantial cut in their pay if they agreed to the proposed changes in working terms and conditions. He also rebutted Unison statements that meat inspectors would have to make themselves available for two hours on any day that the meat plant feels it is necessary. "Staff will be asked to indicate their availability for the following week by a senior before the roster is put in place and the senior will then put in a fair roster which takes account of the operating hours of the plant."

The meat industry has also expressed its disappointment that Unison intends to take industrial action next week. Allan Jess, president of the Scottish Association of Meat Wholesalers, said: "I am extremely disappointed that Unison has announced its intention to strike next week. Effectively, they will be holding the industry hostage, and making a wholly inappropriate ransom demand, as their dispute is with their employers, the Meat Hygiene Service (MHS), not us.

"They are making a very high risk and dangerous move which could have long-term, and extremely damaging, consequences for their members. In addition, relationships with meat inspectors will inevitably be severely damaged should this strike go ahead."

Allan added: "For too long, the terms and conditions of meat inspectors have belonged to a bygone era. There is no place for some of the old fashioned and out-moded practices we see day-in and day-out and this must change. MHS transformation offers the opportunity to establish an efficient, motivated and professional service, fit for the 21st century. Failure, by Unison, to grasp this will be a huge miscalculation.

"I understand that further talks between MHS and Unison are expected later this week. I would urge both parties to enter these talks without delay and with a determination to avoid the consequences I have just outlined."