Shoppers report bread shortages across NI as Hovis factory workers complete sixth day of strike action

Shoppers are reporting shortages of a range of breads across NI as workers at the Hovis factory in south Belfast complete their sixth day of industrial action over pay.

Unite the Union claims the Apollo Road factory supplies at least 50% of NI’s bread supply - including breads sold in packaging of all the major supermarket chains operating in NI.

One reader told the News Letter he had serious difficulty getting a loaf in Banbridge on Tuesday night.

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“Tesco had no white bread of any sort,” he said. “I then tried three filling stations before I got a loaf and the first two had no bread whatsoever.”

Hovis workers hold all-out strike action at the company's factory on Apollo Road in south Belfast. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye

Another said their local shop in Thomas Street, Portadown told him there were supply issues with Hovis and Ormo brands.

And a shopper at Sainsburys in Sprucefield said the bread aisle looked noticeably “light” when shopping this week.

Another lamented that they were unable to get any Hovis loaves at their local Spar in Larne.

The News Letter asked all NI’s main supermarkets what impact the strike was having on their supply chain.

A Sainsbury’s spokesman acknowledged the action was having an impact

“Some stores are running low on some lines but we continue to offer alternatives,” he said.

Marks & Spencers did not deny the strike was biting, but said it can reassure customers that a wide choice of bread “is still available”.

A spokesman for Lidl Northern Ireland said it has put contingency plans in place to cope.

“We are currently closely monitoring for any potential impact but have contingency plans already firmly in place to ensure that our entire store network will continue to be amply supplied,” he said.

Waitrose noted that it only has shops in GB but acknowledged that it has “one product with reduced availability” due to the strikem which it is working to restock.

Sean McKeever, regional officer with Unite the Union, said 95% of the 200 workers at the Hovis factory on the Apollo Road in south Belfast have been on strike since Friday because their colleagues in GB plants were getting paid 10% more.

“We understand the Belfast factory supplies at least 50% of all bread in NI when taking into account all the own brand supermarket bread it supplies,” he said.

“We understand it made £4m profit last year, while the other eight factories in GB combined earned only £20-30m.

“The Belfast plant is therefore the most profitable in the UK and Belfast workers therefore can’t understand they are paid 10% less than workers at the other eight plants.”

Unite says Hovis has declined to engage with the Labour Relations Agency for mediation in NI this week.

The union says the factory supplies Tesco, Lidl, Marks & Spencers, Sainsburys and Asda across NI. Workers also say the factory produces Ormo brand produce and some products for Waitrose in GB.

However a Hovis spokesman challenged many of the trade union claims, saying the plant supplies only 35% of NI’s bread.

“We are disappointed that the unions have chosen to reject a revised, above inflation pay offer of 3.2% each year for two years that we made yesterday, May 18.” he said. “The unions have chosen not to put that offer to our colleagues and their members for a vote.

“We believe this was a fair and reasonable offer given the current market conditions. We remain committed to finding a resolution that is acceptable to both sides and to reaching a conclusion to this action as soon as possible. We have asked the Labour Relations Agency and the unions for a meeting tomorrow, Thursday May 20.”

He added that reports that NI employees earn 10% less than those in GB are not accurate because roles and salaries are not the same across all bakeries and pay is determined by a range of factors including differences in site working practices. ““We benchmark all salaries and benefit packages at all our sites to ensure they are at least market comparable for the regions in which we operate, both locally and in GB.”

Glyn Roberts, Retail NI Chief Executive said that while this is an internal issue for the company and staff it is “a concerning situation” for many of retailers who sell Hovis brands and for their customers who buy them.

“I hope all sides in this dispute can find a speedy resolution to avoid any further disruption in trade,” he added.

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