The Unite Union, which represents harbour workers in Kilkeel, Portavogie and Ardglass, the three key ports operated by the Northern Ireland Fishery Harbour Authority (NIFHA), is threatening a strike that it claims will close down fishing activities.

The threat comes after a protracted review of workers’ pay that first started in 2019. The original 2019 external review, using established channels, recommended increases for workers from the statutory minimum wage to the so-called living wage, calculated to reflect local housing and living costs.

DAERA, the Northern Ireland ministry with responsibility for managing the Harbour Authority – through an external management board with independent appointees – advertises itself as an accredited living wage employer.

The union has written to DAERA minister Andrew Muir, asking him to intervene in the issue, and for an urgent meeting on poverty pay afflicting harbour and fisheries workers.

Kilkeel, voted by FN readers as 2023 Port of the Year – with NIFHA staff here pictured picking up their award – is one of the three Northern Irish harbours threatened with closure in a strike over failure to implement an agreed living wage.

In a statement, the union said: “A strike of NIFHA workers would immediately shut down the ability of Northern Ireland’s fishing fleet to land their catch.”

Unite general secretary Sharon Graham said: “It is disgraceful that most workers at the NIFHA are paid the bare legal minimum. Even the harbour masters are paid only a few pennies more than the living wage. The fisheries and harbours workforce can count on the full backing of Unite in their fight for improved pay.”

Unite regional officer Joanne McWilliams added: “How can the DAERA minister claim his department is an accredited living wage employer when the NIFHA pays the bare legal minimum? This is not acceptable or sustainable.”

Fishermen in Portavogie thought that they would be able to operate ‘without much difficulty’ despite the strike, FN was told, but Ardglass and Kilkeel may find it harder. The landing facilities at Belfast – where the remaining vessels in the Northern Ireland pelagic fleet, and some larger mussel dredgers, land their catches – would be unaffected, and would be available in the case of full closures of the three main Nephrops ports.

In Kilkeel, however, fishermen said that the impact of a strike could be ‘devastating’.

“If it goes ahead, it will be a disaster for the fleet here, as we are told that the environmental health officer will close the fishmarket,” FN was told.

“It needs washed out after every sale to maintain hygiene standards, and if this doesn’t happen, it won’t operate at all.

“A strike will also create a backlog on the three slips in Kilkeel at the busiest time of year, which could impact fishermen and local businesses.

“Any strike is bad enough, but this comes in the middle of the prawn season, when boats have the opportunity to make some money to sustain them through the year – weather and catches will inevitably be poorer later as winter sets in.”

No date had been set for industrial action as FN went to press, with harbour staff pinning hopes on a successful outcome of the requested meeting with the DAERA minister. FN contacted the minister’s office with a request for comment, but had not had a reply as we went to press.

This story was taken from the latest issue of Fishing News. For more up-to-date and in-depth reports on the UK and Irish commercial fishing sector, subscribe to Fishing News here or buy the latest single issue for just £3.30 here

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