From Socialist Voice, July 2009

Irish Ferries moves ashore

Many Irish employers are now using the present economic climate as an excuse for driving down workers’ wages and conditions. In April, employers at Dawn Meats in Midleton, Co. Cork, announced 65 redundancies from among a 100-strong group of directly employed workers. Yet, according to SIPTU, the redundancies are not genuine, as the work involved is either to be transferred to other plants or will be carried out by agency workers, who will in effect be displacing the direct workers who are being made redundant―resonant of the Irish Ferries case.
     After the redundancies were announced the company offered three-and-a-half weeks’ pay per year of service, inclusive of statutory redundancy, with each week of pay (ex gratia as well as statutory) capped at the statutory ceiling of €600 per week. This is wholly inadequate in an economic climate in which alternative employment is almost impossible to get.
     Union members at the plant even offered to work in the Charleville plant, to which their work was being transferred, though it is some forty miles way. Significantly, the management responded to this gesture by stating that it would employ them only on a “cost-neutral basis,” that is, at the same rate as the Charleville workers, who are on the national minimum wage.
     SIPTU rightly brought the case before the Redundancy Panel under the Protection of Employment (Exceptional Collective Redundancies and Related Matters) Act (2007), which was set up in the aftermath of the Irish Ferries debacle for when employees, and their representatives, have doubts about the genuineness of the need for redundancy.
     If it is found that genuine redundancies do not exist, the Government can refuse the employers their 60 per cent rebate on statutory redundancy payments, in which case the tax-free allowances on severance lump sums would also not apply.
     In such cases also the Employment Appeals Tribunal would be able to award compensation to any affected workers who would be, by its resulting logic, unfairly dismissed: up to four years’ pay for those with less than twenty years’ service or five years’ pay for those with more than twenty years’ service. In this case, however, on the day of the Redundancy Panel hearing at the end of May the company agreed to attend a Labour Court hearing. The union has since withdrawn its claim under the 2007 act, in the hope of getting improved terms for its members.
     A similar case under the 2007 act has been referred by SIPTU at Marine Terminals Ltd, a container terminal operator at Dublin Port that accounts for about a quarter of all port traffic. Workers in this company have been asked to either sign new contracts or be made redundant―clearly demonstrating that the redundancies are not genuine.
     Indeed in this company when the union tried to conduct negotiations with the employer, the management insisted on security personnel being present. Understandably, union negotiators objected to this disgraceful condition, which displays the utter contempt the management in this company have for employees.
     What is important to take from these two cases, which appear to be replicated in some other companies around the country, is that employers are threatening workers with redundancy for no other reason than to force through reduced terms and conditions of employment.
     There is undeniably a recession in the economy, but its impact on different industries is uneven, and some industries may find themselves relatively shielded from its effects. Employers, however, want to exaggerate the impact of the economic downturn in order to secure even more intolerable cuts in workers’ pay and conditions so as to opportunistically boost their profit margins. Workers, and their representatives, will need to be very alive to this threat.

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