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Tarmac tunnel grinds to a halt

Workers stage mass walkout on prestigious Lee Tunnel project

WORK at Tarmacs prestigious Lee Tunnel project in Ireland is at a standstill, following a walk-out by 200 workers.

The Tarmac-Walls joint venture building the 67 million tunnel laid off the entire workforce following the protest last week. On Tuesday, a mass meeting was held at the Cork site where workers rejected a recommendation from union leaders and employers to return to the job.

The dispute, already moving into its second week, threatens to exacerbate problems on the job.

A union official claimed the project was up to 12 weeks late, although Tarmac strongly denies this.

But late completion of the immersed tube tunnel could tarnish Tarmacs good track record on tunnelling projects.

The strike comes as Tarmac reaches a critical stage pouring concrete for the first of the 30,000-tonne box sections.

The workers have issued a list of demands including increases on overtime pay and a 2 bonus on hourly rates.

They also want an extension of paid travelling time to work from 45 minutes to two hours, 1,500 severance pay and the free provision of protective clothing.

Tarmac says complying with the demands would add up to 5 million to the cost of the project. And it has accused Irish general union SIPTU of being unrealistic.

Now talks are deadlocked as both sides refuse to budge.

Brendan ONeill, SIPTU branch secretary, said: This dispute dates back 12 months.

There were a number of people coming to us complaining that they were not getting the correct hourly rates and overtime rates. Since then, it has snowballed.

In a statement, Tarmac-Walls said: The labour force is refusing to work normal site hours and restricting work to a 39-hour week. The site cannot be operated on this basis.

But as the dispute enters its second week, Tarmac will be anxious to resolve the costly affair as quickly as possible.

The row is the latest in a series of setbacks that have dogged the site. Last September the contractor was refused permission to use a local site as a dumping ground for the tunnel spoil.

And earlier it ran into problems with the Irish Department of Marine which refused it permission to use sand from nearby sandbanks.

The project is due for completion by mid-1998. But it now looks like the deadlock could drag on at least until the end of the month when the Irish Labour Court is due to report on the dispute.

John OBrien, southern region director of the Construction Employers Federation said that it was now unlikely that a return to work formula could be agreed ahead of a meeting on February 29.