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Pharmaceutical workers' strike 'likely to disrupt medical supplies' to Northern Ireland chemists and GP surgeries

By Claire Cromie

Published 07/07/2015

United Drug Sangers, off the Castlereagh Road in east Belfast
United Drug Sangers, off the Castlereagh Road in east Belfast

Workers at pharmaceutical firm Sangers NI are to take strike action next week - which is likely to result in the disruption of medical supplies to Northern Ireland pharmacies and GP surgeries.

The 24-hour stoppage at United Drug Sangers NI, which has two depots in Belfast, is the first staff protest over pay after a management pay increase was rejected.

It will take place from 6am on Wednesday 15 July.

Trade union Unite said 79.3% of warehouse workers and 97.7% of drivers balloted voted for strike action, and turnout in both exceeded 70%.

The company employs around 285 people - of which almost 200 are represented by Unite.

Regional Officer Sean Smyth said workers had been forced to strike due to "management intransigence" following a seven-month pay freeze and collapsed negotiations.

He said: "Our members have made a huge contribution to the success of this company. Sangers posted almost £12 million profits last year, an increase of 73% on the previous year; a result that placed Sangers 27th in the top 100 NI companies. Yet all the workforce has received for their efforts is a seven-month pay freeze."

The Northern Ireland company is a large distributor of pharmaceutical products to the mainly independently-owned high street chemists.

The share capital of Sangers NI is owned by Alchem which, in turn, is owned by Irish registered United Drug plc.

Mr Smyth added: "Management have refused our requests to take the case to the Labour Relations Agency in an attempt to avoid the industrial action. They have acted in a confrontational way and sought to provoke their workforce into industrial action.

“We are warning the public that management stonewalling is likely to result in significant disruption to the distribution of medical supplies as a result of strike action but even at this late stage it is not too late to avoid this adverse impact on the public. We urge management to reverse course, return to the negotiation table and enter meaningful talks on fair pay."

The Belfast Telegraph has contacted Sangers NI for a response.

The company's turnover in the year to September 2013 continued to grow, but at a smaller rate than other recent years.

The operating profit fell by 34% to £4.2m. However, the fall was partly explained by one-off charges related to restructuring costs and, compared to the previous year, no one-off curtailment gain on the pension fund provision.

In response, a spokesman for a spokesperson United Drug Supply Chain Services said:

“Due to the challenging nature of the Northern Ireland pharmacy market and the loss of two major agencies the operating profit figure in Sangers declined last year and is forecast to decline further in the current year. The profit number quoted is taken from our group’s annual accounts and includes one off proceeds associated with the sale of our 50% share in UniDrug, a joint venture with Alliance Boots, in August 2014, which were reinvested in acquiring other group assets.

Sangers have paid considerable cumulative pay increases in the last five years and have proposed a pay freeze in the current year given the fall in operating profit. Management will continue to engage with staff and Unite to explain the rationale for a pay freeze and seek to reach a resolution.”

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