Stress-hit Talisker staff consider industrial action

Staff at Talisker are currently in negotiations over working demands with distillery owners Diageo through the union Unite.

Staff at Talisker Distillery on Skye are weighing up the option of industrial action in protest against working demands which have forced six of its eight factory workers off sick with stress-related illness in the past year.

The Free Press understands that negotiations are ongoing between the workers, through the Unite union, and drinks giant Diageo – which owns the distillery – to reach an agreement in what has been a long-running dispute concerning working patterns at the plant in Carbost.

A source close to Talisker has alleged that proposed changes, which were put forward by the former management at the distillery, have “destroyed the good atmosphere within the workplace” and left staff “struggling to step through the door to go to work.”

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A string of serious claims made to the Free Press against the company include allegations that:

  • Unite was forced to intervene so workers could take holidays outstanding to them, resulting in the shutdown of the distillery for three weeks last autumn.
  • A staff grievance complaint raised against the then management in summer of 2021 has yet to be addressed.
  • The company has lost millions since a reduction in production of the world-famous whisky – by two days a week – was introduced last year due to staffing shortages.

It has been claimed to the Free Press that the issues initially stemmed from a decision not to replace a member of staff who retired in the summer of 2021, leaving colleagues unable to cover the production hours required.

The source claims that the management at the time sought to introduce single-manning shifts at night, despite it presenting what they described as a heightened risk to the health and safety of the staff.

They alleged that no planning or consultation had been undertaken before the changes were announced to the staff, and that the inexperienced manager leading the plans left their post soon after. 

They also contend that from summer 2021 onwards constantly changing rotas and insufficient workforce numbers have left staff unable to plan for time off, which in turn led to the union rejecting the distillery’s proposals

The source alleged to the Free Press that staff members were disciplined after speaking out about the situation and that nothing had been done to address a grievance complaint raised by workers against the then management in the summer of 2021.

They said that despite this, workers have kept working and production going. However, they claimed that the situation deteriorated further in autumn last year when staff, who were due holidays, were told they would not be permitted to take them as they were expected to cover colleagues who were ill. 

It is claimed that in October 2021 the distillery was shut down for three weeks, following an intervention by Unite to enable workers to take their holiday entitlement, and that production was subsequently reduced from seven days to five days a week in November, which they say remains the case today.

A source close to the Talisker Distillery has claimed that a reduction in production – introduced last year – has cost Diageo a financial loss that runs into millions.

The Free Press has been informed that the staff at the distillery have put forward a compromise but this was rejected by company bosses. 

As it stands, Unite union are currently in negotiations with the distillery, which if unresolved could result in industrial action by the staff.

“Staff were told that the changes were going to happen, that there would be no consultation, however, no explanation was given as to how it would work,” the whistleblower told the Free Press.

Highlighting the impact on the workers, they said: “Six out of the eight people have been off with stress-related illness over the last year, some for several months.

“This is impacting the health and wellbeing of the staff at Talisker and their ability to work long-term in the future. Agreements in place to protect people are being pushed aside.

“People struggle to step through the door to go to work. They’ve destroyed the good working atmosphere within the place.”

They went on to add: “The staff have gone from being treated in a professional manner to one of contempt, in a very short time. It was all down to the management team at that time and not down to the current people.

“The loss to the company in production (from seven days to five) runs into the millions due to illness and insufficient manpower, and that’s not including the weeks that it was shut.

“The pattern of working is leading to fatigue and illness – no proper rest period on a long-term basis, staff will eventually become unfit for work. Their work-life balance will be taken away.”

The Free Press contacted Unite for comment, however they said they could not speak publicly on the matter.

A Diageo spokesperson said: “We are in ongoing discussions with our employees at Talisker Distillery and their representatives regarding working patterns to enable flexibility in our operations. 

“These talks are continuing and it would be inappropriate for us to comment further until they have been fully concluded.”

Article by Adam Gordon, images by Willie Urquhart.