Seanad debates

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Adjournment Matters.

Redundancy Payments

5:00 pm

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Fianna Fail)
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I am glad to have the Minister in the House. Go raibh maith agat a Chathaoirligh. Gabhaim buíochas duit an ábhar tábhachtach seo a roghnú maidir le na h-oibrithe thuas i nDún na Rí i gContae na Mí a bhfuil i ndáirire ar stailc agus a bhfuil "blocade" ar siúil acu ó lár mí na Nollaig seo chaite.

I raise the issue of the Lagan Brick factory. If this factory were in a main town or city it would be occupying the main news headlines on a daily basis. Since the middle of December the workers in the Lagan Brick factory, who have been treated appallingly by their bosses, have been engaged in a combination of blockading the factory and, since last Saturday, on official picket. They are now almost 12 weeks on that blockade, which is the same length of time involved in the Vita Cortex workers case, but they have received none of the publicity or praise. My heart goes out to those men because they are not looking for publicity or praise. They seek only their entitlements and their rights.

On behalf of the workers I plead with the Minister to intervene in this dispute in an effective way because no intervention has been forthcoming. In terms of what will happen without an intervention, first, Ireland's only brick factory will close down. This industry is traditional to that area, and there are no other brick factories in the country. Second, many workers will lose their jobs including workers from County Meath, where the factory is based, County Cavan, in which the main town of Kingscourt is located, County Monaghan and County Louth. As the Minister is aware, there are a number of issues associated with employment law that have not been resolved satisfactorily. Many of the workers in the plant have served for over 20 years but are receiving only statutory redundancy and a slightly higher offering from the company. This is not acceptable. It now seems to be common practice for companies to offer only statutory redundancy in the belief that the State will pay.

The announcement was made before Christmas in the aftermath of the budget. Had it anything to do with the budgetary announcement on redundancy payments? There was a warning in that regard at the time. The Minister must intervene. The staff in question are beaten down and totally disheartened. They do not seem to be receiving any support, certainly no official support. I plead with Lagan Brick, a very substantial company that relies on goodwill throughout the country, to use its goodwill and protect it by re-entering talks in the Labour Relations Commission. I urge the Minister to intervene on behalf of the workers and the brick industry in Ireland. It should not be closed down on a day when we are talking about doing everything possible to ensure job security. While we are talking of job security, we are allowing a very important industry, a brick factory, to close down. I ask the Minister for a substantial response. The workers in counties Meath and Cavan are looking forward to hearing it.

Photo of Richard BrutonRichard Bruton (Minister, Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation; Dublin North Central, Fine Gael)
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I thank Senator Byrne for raising this matter on the Adjournment. As he stated, the workers at the Lagan Brick factory in Kingscourt, County Cavan, have been involved in a protest outside the company's premises in a dispute over the decision by the company to close its operation on 15 December last, with the loss of 29 jobs. The union wanted to retain maximum employment at the plant and secure satisfactory redundancy terms for any workers that lost their jobs. Subsequently, representatives of the company and the trade union SIPTU attended conciliation talks at the Labour Relations Commission on 10 and 16 January. Following those talks, the company and SIPTU accepted proposals put to both sides to the commission to progress the issues in dispute. In line with these proposals, an independent assessor, agreed by both sides, undertook an examination of the trading position of the company, including an assessment of the viability of continuing manufacturing in Kingscourt.

It was envisaged that the assessor would provide a report to both sides within a period of two weeks and that the parties would reconvene under the auspices of the commission on 30 January to consider the implications of the assessor's report and other outstanding issues, including the question of severance terms for required redundancies.

The assessor subsequently sought additional time to complete the report and the reconvened hearing took place on 6 February. Following receipt of the assessor's report, further progress was, I understand, made at the Labour Relations Commission on a number of issues, but agreement on the central issue of redundancy terms was not achieved. Following the hearing on 6 February, SIPTU stated that it would be seeking the intervention of the Labour Court in this dispute following the failure to reach agreement in the talks at the commission. However, I understand that Lagan Brick subsequently issued a statement contending it had fully engaged and made all reasonable efforts to settle the dispute, and that acceptance of the terms on offer was now best left as a matter for each employee to decide on as reasonable negotiation had, in the company's view, come to an end.

SIPTU claims the failure of the company to attend the Labour Court is in breach of the private sector protocol agreed by IBEC and ICTU in 2010, stipulating that parties utilise the machinery of the State - the Labour Court and Labour Relations Commission, or other agreed machinery - to resolve disputes.

I understand that, in a ballot conducted on Thursday, 1 March, SIPTU members in Lagan Brick voted almost unanimously to take strike action in response to the company's decision not to attend the Labour Court, and that seven days' notice of strike action was served on Lagan Brick by SIPTU on 2 March.

I regret that the company has decided against attending a Labour Court hearing, contrary to good industrial relations practice in that regard. The experience and expertise of the Labour Court offers the most appropriate and effective avenue for resolving such disputes. I urge the company to agree to avail of the services of the State's industrial relations machinery and I urge both parties to engage fully in the process. I urge the parties to put their difficulties and differences behind them and approach the process in good faith with a view to accepting the outcome of the process.

Ireland's system of industrial relations is, essentially, voluntary in nature and responsibility for the resolution of industrial disputes between employers and workers, whether in redundancy or other collective disputes, rests with the employer, the workers and their representatives. The State provides the industrial relations dispute settlement services to support parties in their efforts to resolve their differences.

Even what often appears to be the most intractable of disputes is capable of being resolved where both sides engage constructively and in good faith in this voluntary process. The principle of good faith implies that both sides in a dispute make every effort to reach an agreement and endeavour, through genuine and constructive negotiations, to resolve their differences. I urge the parties involved in this dispute to work together to break the current impasse by utilising the established machinery for dispute resolution, which is available to assist at short notice.

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Fianna Fail)
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I have a number of questions. The last three paragraphs of page 2 of the Minister's speech and the first paragraph of page 3 should be included in a letter to the company. The Minister is making his remarks on the record of the Seanad but they would have some strength if they were on the Minister's headed paper and sent to the company. He would not be doing anything wrong by doing so as he would be stating what he is stating in the Seanad. The remarks would have extra impact.

We must acknowledge how pitiful it is to have seen 29 strong, skilled workers standing at a brazier since before Christmas, the caravan beside them being their only shelter. In the event of the company closing down, as is planned, what does the Minister propose to do to retrain the staff?

I want the Minister to think about these issues and not just respond to me now, although I will be delighted to hear his response now if he wishes to give it. What does he propose to do to protect the brick industry and keep the jobs in Ireland? There is a strong export demand for the bricks that come from Kingscourt as they are well known.

I appeal to the media to consider this issue, visit the workers at the brazier, look inside their caravan and note the suffering they have had to put up with for the past 12 weeks. The media should highlight their plight as this would be of considerable assistance to the workers in dealing with the company.

Photo of Richard BrutonRichard Bruton (Minister, Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation; Dublin North Central, Fine Gael)
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I am happy to provide both sides with a copy of the comments I have made. Retraining options comprise a longer term issue that does not fall directly within my brief. There are considerable challenges to be faced in seeking to develop retraining options for people who have been in the construction sector. Part of the jobs plan we have been discussing involves determining where there are opportunities in the construction sector and how they can be developed in what is a very difficult period for the sector. Programmes such as Springboard are directly designed to seek to assist people to switch from one area to another and are resulting in success.