Thursday, 14 June 2012
Lagan Brick Dispute: Statements
I thank the Leader for allowing this issue on the Order of Business and the Minister for remaining here to deal with it. We often propose amendments to the Order of Business in the full knowledge they will never be accepted. I am glad it was accepted this time and I am grateful to the Leader and to the Minister. It is a recognition of its serious nature.
The Lagan Brick factory in Kingscourt, County Meath, with which the Minister will be familiar, is the last remaining brick factory in Ireland. It was closed by its owners 180 days ago, leaving the workers completely in the lurch. Some time later they went on an unofficial dispute and this dispute continues. There have been several unsuccessful attempts at mediation. Huge sacrifices have been made by the workers who have been badly treated. All they want is fair and equitable severance. However, the dispute raises much broader issues.
We have denigrated our manufacturing industries in Ireland and it is a disgrace that the last remaining brick factory is being closed in an area that is naturally good for the production of bricks and other building materials. It is a shame they will now be imported. That is not good for the Irish economy nor for the local economy. What is galling is that while workers are in dispute and are suffering, arms of this particular company still receive public contracts. That just does not add up. A particular insult to the workers was the contract awarded by Cavan County Council to an arm of Lagan to resurface the main street in Kingscourt, County Cavan. We are seeing a race to the bottom here, where companies want to get rid of reasonably paid staff who are earning enough to live and work in their own communities and contribute to their local economy. There is a race to the bottom to employ people at the cheapest possible price.
This dispute began on the same day as the Vita Cortex dispute. It has not had nearly the same media profile, but the workers deserve that same profile. They also deserve more action from the Government to try to force this major Irish company into some kind of serious settlement arrangement with the workers. The arms of the State that deal with industrial relations have not succeeded. The laws are too weak and I do not think they were envisaged for companies that were closing down and laying off workers. The Labour Court and the labour relations process seem to be more suited to dealing with the mundane issues that arise in the course of work such as work practices and shift arrangements in companies. They do not seem suited at all to the circumstances occurring so often today, where companies simply close lock, stock and barrel. We need major reform in this area.
As these processes have failed, I urge the Minister to take a much more proactive stance on this issue to get justice for these workers, but also to protect a native Irish industry which feeds off the natural resources of that particular part of Cavan and Meath.
I thank the Leader for agreeing to this amendment to the Order of Business, and I thank the Minister for coming before the House this afternoon. I endorse wholeheartedly everything that Senator Byrne has said. This dispute began six months ago and we are no further on, in spite of a number of interventions. We are asking the Minister to intervene personally to ensure these workers get the entitlements they richly deserve.
I would also like to mention another difficulty taking place eight miles down the road in Bailieborough, County Cavan, involving Flair International. Deputy Brendan Smith raised this issue with the Minister in the Lower House yesterday. A provisional liquidator was appointed to Flair International on 6 June. This company has a very proud tradition for many decades in Bailieborough, with a skilled workforce producing a quality product with a substantial export market. Fifty six workers were laid off with very short notice last Monday by Flair International. Along with the Lagan Brick workers in Kingscourt, I ask the Minister to intervene personally in this dispute and ensure these workers, who are only going to get their statutory entitlements, are given everything to which they are entitled.
I endorse everything Senator Byrne said about the Lagan Brick workers in Kingscourt, County Cavan. It is deplorable that State contracts are given to this company while it deals with these employees and their families in this manner. I thank the Minister for coming to the House this afternoon.
I thank the Senators for raising this issue. I met the Lagan Brick workers when I was there last month. The workers 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 in the plant and secure satisfactory redundancy terms for any of the workers who would lose their jobs. Subsequently, representatives of the company and of SIPTU attended conciliation talks at the Labour Relations Commission on 10 January and 16 January. These talks were reconvened on 6 February following consideration by both sides of an examination of the trading position of the company, undertaken by an independent expert.
Following the hearing on 6 February, SIPTU stated that it would be seeking the intervention of the Labour Court in the dispute, following the failure to reach agreement in the LRC talks. However, I understand that Lagan Brick subsequently issued a statement to the effect that the company did not intend to pursue further negotiations with worker representatives on the matter. In a ballot conducted on 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 seven days' notice of strike action was served on Lagan Brick by SIPTU on 2 March. An official strike began on 10 March. Since then, I understand the parties have engaged in direct discussions in an effort to resolve the dispute with the assistance of a mediation panel, under an agreed independent chairman appointed jointly by ICTU and IBEC. Unfortunately, that process has failed to reach a resolution. It is of great regret that the parties have not been able to reach an agreement to resolve this long-running dispute.
The Senators have raised the issue of whether we should reconsider our laws in this area. We would have to be very careful about it. Our entire approach to industrial relations has been based on a voluntary system. The State does not impose on either party. It does not make decisions that have a binding effect. What we have is very experienced services in both the Labour Relations Commission, LRC, and the Labour Court, which over long difficult periods such as that in which we are at present, have succeeded in bringing the two sides together to resolve such disputes. Ultimately, disputes must be solved by the two sides reaching an agreement. I strongly urge the parties involved in this dispute to work together to break the current impasse by using the machinery we have that is available to assist at short notice. The experience and expertise of the Labour Court offers the most appropriate and effective avenue for resolving such issues.
The Senator also raised the issue of Flair International. I understand that the High Court appointed a provisional liquidator to the company on 6 June and the assets, goodwill and undertaking of the business were advertised for sale on 8 June. I am conscious of the anxiety that the appointment of a provisional liquidator to the company concerned creates for the workers involved and their families, as well as the local community. People understand the concerns this action has raised. However, one of the powers given by the court to the liquidator was to grant a licence to continue to trade in the short term. A licence agreement was concluded between the liquidator and a new company on 7 June. Sales operations commenced on 8 June and the employment of key people and further recruitment of staff for operation of the factory is anticipated. Obviously if there are industrial dispute issues we have the machinery and the employment rights provisions to deal with them.
The company is a client of Enterprise Ireland and the agency is continuing to liaise with the agency concerned and will offer any assistance it possibly can to explore opportunities to maintain and develop the business. I hope that out of the unfortunate appointment of a liquidator we can see something re-emerge that would provide a future for the workers concerned.