SIPTU workers at Element Six have been suffering mental health issues, as a result of stress and pressure in the workplace, it has been claimed. This comes in advance of a planned 24-hour work stoppage on September 21.
One shop steward told The Clare Champion that union members have spoken to him about having been prescribed medication to deal with workplace-related anxiety and depression.
He said people have also been ringing him to say they are unable to go to work, such is their level of distress.
“It’s very bad, to the point that people took a stand for industrial action; they felt they had no other option. The way that people are being treated down there, I think people have had enough. Numerous people have been out, due to stress; some of them have just conceded and taken early retirement. I think most of them would have rather worked until closer to 65, but they are just conceding and getting out.”
Element Six declined to comment on the situation, ahead of the strike, which is due to take place on Wednesday next. The company long held the reputation for being an excellent employer but that perception has changed in more recent years, as a range of changes were introduced to keep the plant open in 2009.
Assistant industrial organiser with SIPTU, Ray Mitchell claimed that a failure by Element Six to accept a recent Labour Court recommendation proved the last straw for his members.
“Ninety-six per cent of members voted in favour of strike. We had two general meetings, the first one proposed to go to ballot.
“Once we received the result of the ballot, we had another meeting and nearly all of the members attended. We agreed to go for a 24-hour stoppage and the mood was that we had to take it as far as we could.”
The Labour Court looked at five issues relating to Element Six – the proposed introduction of shift work for those working in the company’s grits section, proposed changes in relation to its distribution centre, shift premium, banked hours and redundancy packages. Some of these matters have been contentious since restructuring introduced under the Shannon Sustainability Plan (SSP) of 2009.
When the court issued a recommendation, it was broadly favourable to SIPTU, as it stated that the workers in the grits and distribution areas should be given voluntary redundancy packages, on terms provided for in the SSP, or be redeployed to suitable day work elsewhere in the plant.
It also recommended that the shift/unsociable hour terms, as provided for in the SSP, should be implemented. It called for an issue around banked hours to be resolved locally or with the Workplace Relations Commission, with the court’s services also available to the parties.
Mr Mitchell said Element Six had not followed the recommendation.
“They have not done it. They have issued rotas to the members and said there is no redundancy package and no day shift jobs.”
He also said the company’s attitude to the SSP has been disappointing.
“There were a lot of long and difficult negotiations to come up with the 2009 SSP. Basically, what the court has done is to say that it should be accepted. We took a lot of sacrifices in 2009 as part of that but when it comes to implementing something slightly in our favour, they reject that.”
This week, Element Six was holding a ballot of its workforce, asking workers if they agreed with SIPTU opting to take industrial action. Its outcome will have no impact on the union’s decision to strike but the decision to hold it riled some SIPTU members.
“It is a serious move by members of a union to withdraw their labour and it’s a culmination of things that have happened over seven years. This morning [Wednesday] I saw workers going in and, when they heard about the ballot, you could see on their faces that they were thinking, ‘here we go again’. People are then expected to do 12 hours’ work in a toxic environment,” one man commented.
While he expects to be on the picket lines next Wednesday, he said striking is a last resort and added that it could have a lasting impact on relations between workers who strike and those who do not.
“Are things going to be the same? I don’t believe they are. I don’t think there’s going to be any conflict but things won’t be the same, which isn’t to the company’s benefit,” he said.
A second shop steward told The Clare Champion that there is a feeling among SIPTU members that they have been facing problems for years now and, while there is some weariness, they are prepared to take up the cudgels.
“The fear of being bullied is gone from us; we are kind of numb from it. We are trying to stick together and trying to have a bit of a laugh or whatever. The feeling is why can’t we just come in, do our day’s work and go home again.”
Workers also say that, in recent times, people with decades of experience, some aged in their 50s and 60s, have been moved onto shift work, which has proven difficult for them, while they doubt the necessity for the move.
Mr Mitchell said SIPTU is available for late talks to avert industrial action, if the company is willing.
According to the Labour Court recommendation, Element Six employs 398 people in Shannon, a number that was once as low as 250. Up to 120 staff are covered by the terms of the SSP, while it is understood that there are approximately 90 SIPTU members set to strike.
By Owen Ryan