The workers strike back

On 24 May 2012, 23 former workers of the Vita Cortex manufacturing plant in Cork left their former plant after a six-month sit-in protest. Their protest had already lead to a compromise deal to resolve the dispute earlier in the month, in what was one of the longest sit-in protests in Irish industrial history. The workers had to take extraordinary measures to enforce their rights and they were not the only ones to find themselves fighting for what they considered was fair recompense after being made redundant.

Over the last couple of years, a number of companies - such as Laura Ashley, Game, Waterford Crystal, H.W. Wilson/Ebsco, Vita Cortex, La Senza, Thomas Cook and Kingscourt/Lagan Brick Workers - have seen workers they made redundant fight back and attempt to secure their rights through a variety of means. Why have so many workers felt that they had no choice but to enter into a dispute with former employers following redundancy?

According to Senator David Cullinane, the workers’ rights spokesperson for Sinn Féin, there are a number of contributing factors. “Obviously the recession to some extent contributed, more firms are under pressure, more firms are closing, and many more workers are being laid off on account of that. Clearly that, and the fact that alternative employment is more difficult to obtain currently, has meant that more and more workers are demanding rights, and in many instances, are finding that companies are either unwilling or unable to provide these entitlements. There is also a lack of protection legally, in my view.”

The limitations of existing legislation

So, is our industrial relations legislation doing its job and protecting employees, or is it skewed in favour of the employers? In Ireland, under the Protection of Employment Act 1977, as amended, employers are obliged to enter into a mandatory 30-day consultation period and provide representatives with an opportunity to consider proposals for redundancy. The Labour Court is another industrial relations tool that can be used to mediate in disputes - such as over redundancy payments. The Labour Court is not a court of law. It operates as an industrial relations tribunal, hearing both sides in a case and then issuing a recommendation, setting out its opinion on the dispute and the terms on which it should be settled. However, some employers have decided to ignore legislation and ignore industrial relations mediation. For example, workers at the Lagan Brick manufacturing plant in Kingscourt were informed that it was closing only hours before it ceased operation on Friday, 15 December 2011. Since then, 25 SIPTU members formerly employed at the plant have been in dispute with the management of Lagan Brick. The dispute has involved the former workers staging a round-the-clock protest at the gates of the premises in Kingscourt and has now escalated, with union members protesting at various sites that Lagan Group has contracts at.

Even when in instances of the Labour Court making a recommendation, employers are ignoring them, particularly if the recommendation is not to their liking. The former employees of H.W. Wilson Company have experienced the dismissive attitude that employers can have towards Labour Court recommendations. Last summer, the H.W. Wilson Company, a leading provider of library resources, was taken over by Ebsco Publishing. Forty staff in their Dublin office lost their jobs. Ebsco then ignored a recommendation from the Irish Labour Court, which said they should issue a redundancy payment in line with industry norms. To date, all the workers have received is their statutory minimum of two weeks per year of service, despite the Labour Court recommending a package of four weeks per year of service.

Colette Willis was employed with H.W. Wilson and is now involved in a campaign to secure the redundancy package recommended by the Labour Court for the company’s former employees. She says:

“There was a three-month-long consultation process during the takeover, but it rapidly became clear that Ebsco had no intention of actually participating in or responding to anything raised during the process and the employees were stonewalled repeatedly by Ebsco’s solicitor, John Hogan. We had no communication with or from Ebsco directly: everything has been referred to Hogan and they have refused repeatedly to engage with us without lawyers.”

Despite the Labour Court issuing a recommendation in relation to this dispute, Willis soon discovered how much weight this carried. “By far the most shocking thing for most of us was finding out how powerless the Irish Labour Court is and how reluctant the Government is to support its decisions. What is the point of giving multinational corporations all these benefits and incentives if they refuse to show good faith to our institutions in turn? Richard Bruton’s responses to Dáil questions on the matter have been very disheartening.”

Possible solutions

In May of this year, Sinn Féin published a bill aimed at improving the rights of workers facing redundancy. The Protection of Employees (Amendment) Bill 2012 proposed increasing the consultation period to 60 days for companies employing between 20 and 100 people, and to 90 days for those employing more than 100 staff. It also put an onus on the Employment Appeals Tribunal and the Labour Court to respond more quickly to workers who are made redundant. This is against a backdrop of a backlog of approximately 29,000 statutory redundancy claims according to the latest figures. It also dealt with the anomaly of workers who have been let go by companies which are insolvent in all but name, but which have not had a liquidator appointed, allowing them to claim for their entitlements under the Insolvency Fund in the Department of Social Protection. The bill was supported by a number of the largest trade unions in the country, including Unite, SIPTU and Mandate. It was also supported by United Left Alliance deputies and other members of the technical group in the Dáil. According to David Cullinane of Sinn Féin they knew this proposed legislation was not a panacea but rather a progressive first step.

“We are aware that the bill does not deal with all the issues relating to redundancy. We were seeking to resolve a number of particular anomalies, and improve the process and speed at which these issues are dealt with. This is a particular issue, as workers currently find that they have to wait quite some time before they get their stautory minimum entitlements.”

However, the bill did not find favour with the Government, with Taoiseach Enda Kenny describing it as a simplistic solution. Minster of State at the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, John Perry made the following comments when discussing the bill in the Dáil: “Sinn Fein’s bill, while well intended, would offer no practical improvements to the plight of workers. Instead, it would impose an unreasonable and unnecessary constraint on employers and employees and would serve only to shackle our efforts to respond to the increasingly sophisticated demands of industry and labour market requirements.” Despite those assertions, Ireland in comparative terms fares poorly in the matter of redundancy consultation. In contrast to the 30-day statutory consultation mandated here, in Britain the minimum period is 90 days. Also, in some continental European countries there are safety-net schemes through which government subsidy keeps threatened workers in their employment for several months whilst they look for new jobs.

The Government have promised to draft a workplace relations bill. We contacted the office of Richard Bruton the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation to get an update on this, but they declined the opportunity to comment. David Cullinane is sceptical of the minister’s commitment to the issue. “Richard Bruton has shown little interest in workers’ rights, and his focus is clearly on keeping employers happy.”

So with legislation presently not forthcoming, the struggle continues for workers such as Colette Willis, despite the hardships such campaigns involve. “The campaign has had a big effect on my life,” she says. “It was a huge learning curve, setting up a Facebook page, online petition and a blog and it was hard trying to find the time for the campaign when it is essentially unpaid work. The fight has become harder since our public protest, with motivation dwindling among the group, but we are hopeful we can mount another sustained push shortly. We just don’t want to give them the satisfaction of giving up. We also got an unexpectedly large legal bill that kind of knocked the wind out of our sails, and we’re also waiting on the long-overdue result of the Rights Commissioner’s decision. If she decides in our favour the ruling would be legally binding, unlike the Labour Court’s recommendation, so it would be interesting to see what Ebsco would do in that case.”  {jathumbnailoff}


Image top courtesy Wilson Pickets campaign