US trade deal threatens thousands of Northern Ireland jobs, warns union
A government trade deal with the United States after Brexit could threaten thousands of jobs in Northern Ireland, it has been warned.
The trade union Unite claimed that jobs in processing and distribution, particularly in rural areas, could be at risk.
The union, which represents most of the workforce at major employer Moy Park, also sounded alarm bells that a US trade deal could open the door to foodstuffs produced with hormones and insecticides.
Regional official Sean McKeever said: "Northern Ireland's agri-food sector is characterised by its quality-assurance.
"Opening the door to cut-cost competition from the United States has the potential to threaten thousands of jobs in the processing, distribution and the supply sectors, across the rural economy.
"Northern Ireland is already hugely exposed to the risks from Brexit - it is vital that our agri-food sector is protected in any future trade deals.
"We will not be the collateral damage for Tory party attempts to distract away from their abject failure and cluelessness in the ongoing Brexit negotiations," he added.
UK environment secretary Michael Gove yesterday said the UK should not accept imports of chlorinated chickens as part of any future trade deal with the US.
Mr Gove, who visited farmers' leaders in Northern Ireland last weekend, vowed the UK would not "compromise" on or "dilute" its animal welfare standards in the interests of trade.
He was responding to comments by international trade secretary Liam Fox, who said chlorinated chicken was one "detail" which would only be addressed at the end of discussions about a free trade deal - likely to be years away.
Mr Gove said: "I have made it perfectly clear we are not going to dilute our high environmental standards or our animal welfare standards in the pursuit of a trade deal.
"We need to ensure that we do not compromise those standards. And we need to be in a position, as we leave the European Union, to be leaders in environmental and in animal welfare standards."
Mr McKeever argued that Mr Fox had cast a dark shadow by suggesting that a post-Brexit trade deal might allow for the import of chlorinated chicken from the US.
The Unite official said it was "a move which would mark a sharp liberalisation of trade from the situation where, as part of the EU, such imports are banned due to concerns for human health". He added: "There are broader concerns that any Tory-negotiated trade deal with the US could open the door to foodstuffs produced with hormones and insecticides casually used by US-based agri-food multi-nationals, but which are restricted at present in the UK."
A House of Lords report has warned that UK farmers' livelihoods could be threatened by an influx of cheaper food imports from the US.
There was evidence that UK consumers would be willing to pay more for food reared to higher standards, although it remained to be seen if this would happen in practice, it added.