Seanad debates

Thursday, 22 May 2008

1:00 pm

Photo of Martin BradyMartin Brady (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister, Deputy Billy Kelleher and congratulate him on his appointment and the good job he is doing. We wish him well for the future.

Photo of Paudie CoffeyPaudie Coffey (Fine Gael)
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I intend to share my time with Senator Cummins. I also welcome the Minister of State to the House. Yesterday we raised the predicament in which Waterford Crystal finds itself regarding sustaining its future, which is a matter of national significance. Being from the south of the country the Minister knows well what Waterford Crystal means not only from a manufacturing perspective but also to the tourism industry of Waterford city, the south east and the country in general. It is an iconic international brand and a flagship tourism attraction. It is one of the top visitor attraction sites in the country which hundreds of thousands of tourists visit every year. There is a spin-off value that cannot be underestimated to the hotel and restaurant trade. The luxury liner industry coming in to Waterford estuary has been developed over the years.

As the Minister of State knows, manufacturing in general is under major pressure in Ireland owing to a lack of competitiveness and we are beginning to see the effects being hammered home where good jobs are under serious threat. Thousands worked in Waterford Crystal at one stage. It has consolidated and restructured to respond to the new economic challenges it meets. Some 500 jobs are on the line if the company cannot find a sustainable future. The Minister is aware that a request was made to the Government to underwrite a loan of €39 million and this has been declined. I am interested to hear what the Government proposes to say to this company and how it can assist it to remain viable and sustainable into the future.

We talk about protecting our heritage and art. This company is living heritage. It is manufacturing, but also a living, working part of our heritage and a tourism attraction that cannot be built up again once lost. That is the significance of this issue. The Government said it could not guarantee the loan but would consider future requests from the company for conventional forms of financial assistance. I would like to hear specifically what is meant by that and what assistance the Government can offer to this company. I hope the Minister of State will outline this in his response. I call for the Tánaiste and her officials to meet the officials, management and union leaders of Waterford Crystal to see if a workable mechanism can be found to sustain this company. Members on all sides of this House must do all in their power to protect jobs and that is what we were elected to do. I call on the Minister of State to make a direct intervention in this issue and see what support can be given before it is too late.

2:00 pm

Photo of Maurice CumminsMaurice Cummins (Fine Gael)
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Waterford Crystal provides 990 jobs. More than 400 are to go under a redundancy and restructuring package, which leaves more than 500 jobs. As Senator Coffey said, a request was made that the Government guarantee a loan of €39 million. It was not granted because to do so could set a precedent for the future. There have been many precedents, such as PMPA, the Goodman group and many other companies that were bailed out by the State. The precedent argument does not wash. There is palpable anger in the city from which I come at the Government's stance on this issue. Not so long ago there were more than 3,000 jobs in Waterford Crystal in Dungarvan and Waterford City. That is down to 500. With more than 3,000 people on very good wages paying PRSI and PAYE Waterford Crystal probably contributed more than any other company in the country over the years. To be denied the loan guarantee over the next three years does not go down well in the city.

As my colleague stated, we need clarity on what assistance the Government will give. Pious platitudes like retraining grants do not wash for this flagship company. We need to know what the Government will do and what specific actions it will take to help the company to continue to exist in Waterford. The company and unions are very disappointed about the decision made. They were hopeful in recent weeks that a positive response would be forthcoming from the Government.

I tabled an Adjournment matter in the House three weeks ago to find out the Government's stance and I withdrew it in the interests of the workers, the company and the unions because negotiations were at a delicate stage. I did not think I would be coming back to the House three or four weeks afterwards to speak on the issue because the response to the request from Waterford Crystal was negative. It is certainly a kick in the teeth to the people of Waterford and the remaining workers. I hope in his response the Minister of State would have concrete proposals on what the Government intends to do to help the workers of Waterford Crystal.

Photo of Billy KelleherBilly Kelleher (Minister of State with special responsibility for Labour Affairs, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Cork North Central, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Acting Chairman for his kind words. I thank Senators Coffey and Cummins for raising this important matter. For some months past the Government has engaged with the management of Waterford Wedgwood plc following a request from the company for support to assist in the implementation of a restructuring plan. The support sought was to fund planned restructuring in Waterford Crystal which would entail approximately 500 redundancies.

As Waterford Crystal is a major Irish employer with an internationally recognised brand and a solid history of exporting achievement, especially in the US market, the Government was most anxious to ensure its request for assistance received the fullest consideration. Accordingly, detailed discussions were held with the company with a view to identifying possible interventions that would assist it to complete the planned restructuring in Waterford successfully, while not undermining the policy position that has underpinned our enterprise development strategies over recent decades. Unfortunately, it was not possible to accede to the company's request.

The thrust of enterprise strategy adhered to by all Governments over the past 20 years or so is to concentrate State support to firms on investments which will help them to compete successfully in an increasingly globalised economy. The Government sees its role as helping to create an economic environment where business can prosper, focusing on interventions that are related to developmental investment by companies, such as research and development grants, support for upskilling, etc. Such policy does not extend to providing the type of support sought by the company in this case.

The effects of globalisation are felt in even the smallest markets and global competition will intensify and extend its reach. The Government has recognised the inevitable changes taking place across world markets for both trade and investment. Enterprise policies aimed at equipping companies with the ability to compete better in world markets, capture the opportunities from globalisation and build competitive advantage in innovation and knowledge have been central to policy development. The best response to globalisation is to ensure Ireland remains attractive for investment and enterprise growth. Our attractions include a competitive tax and regulatory environment, a well-educated workforce, rapidly improving infrastructure and a commitment to world-class standards of research, development and innovation. Maintaining and improving these standards is vital to sustaining Ireland's competitiveness.

While it has not been possible to accede to the company's request for support in this case, the Government believes there is a solid future for a restructured Waterford Crystal operation in Ireland and asks that the board of Waterford Wedgwood, its management and its staff work together to agree such financial and other measures as are necessary for the successful implementation of the restructuring plan. Reference was made to the following point. Any request or proposal from the company for aid for new investment will be considered sympathetically by the enterprise development agencies as appropriate.

We fully understand the depth of feeling and the concerns expressed by the Senators, but we also have strategies in place and we are confident that what we are doing in the context of the south east will provide job opportunities and investment through the State agencies in the greater Waterford area. I thank the Senators.

Photo of Maurice CumminsMaurice Cummins (Fine Gael)
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It is poor consolation to the workers.