independent

Friday 18 April 2014

Economic chaos and misery if ESB strikes

As Ireland exits bailout, power cuts threaten our recovery

Union: Brendan Ogle insists he's trying to keep talks open
Union: Brendan Ogle insists he's trying to keep talks open

MULTINATIONAL company bosses have personally contacted Taoiseach Enda Kenny to warn him ESB power cuts will cost the country jobs, the Sunday Independent has learnt.

In the week the US financial bible Forbes named Ireland as the best country in the world to do business, our ability to attract jobs is now on a knife-edge over the threat of stoppages – just as Ireland exits the bailout.

Shops and restaurants are also bracing themselves for closures ahead of the busiest period of the year in the run-up to Christmas, if next Monday's strike goes ahead. Fears have also been expressed for the welfare of elderly people living in isolated rural areas.

With no sign of a breakthrough in sight, ministers this weekend told the Sunday Independent they believe ESB union boss Brendan Ogle is determined to force a strike.

And major international employers, who employ more than 150,000 workers in Ireland, have warned the Government and the IDA that future foreign investment is on the line if there is a disruption to the electricity supply for the high-end manufacturers.

"It would be very damaging to the multinational community and to investment decisions if it did go ahead," IDA chief executive Barry O'Leary told the Sunday Independent.

"It is such a vital element. Electricity is perhaps the most basic of the things you need. Ireland had always fared very well in terms of reliability and availability." Mr O'Leary said the high-end manufacturers in the pharmaceutical and microchip development sectors, along with the data storage operators, are particularly concerned.

He said some companies would lose an entire week's production if they lost electricity even for a few minutes.

"It can take a week to get the systems back up and running," he said.

Concerned bosses of multinational companies have personally contacted the Taoiseach's office to outline their concerns.

"We are getting very concerned contact from the multinational sector at this stage. Some of them are saying decisions on expansion are imminent. More of them are saying their operations will be affected," a senior government source told the Sunday Independent.

"It shouldn't happen. Every effort is being made to avoid it happening. The consequences are not just immediate."

ESB unions and management remain locked in talks this weekend with the Labour Relations Commission, with no sign of a breakthrough.

The case is expected to be passed to the Labour Court early next week to give it a full week to bring about a resolution. Meanwhile, the Sunday Independent has also learnt that gardai are understood to be investigating a death threat issued to Mr Ogle and his family. The threat was sent to Mr Ogle's workplace on Monday morning and immediately reported to ESB security, who advised Mr Ogle to report the matter to the gardai.

The letter targeted Mr Ogle and his young family.

A source in the ESB told the Sunday Independent: "The letter stated that Mr Ogle would be a target in his workplace, in his home, his car and anywhere he goes. It also threatened his wife and children in a similar manner. He has been advised to take the matter seriously."

Gardai are also investigating a threatening email sent to a business group that had advocated that 100,000 small and medium businesses should switch electricity provider if ESB staff strike this week. Retail Excellence Ireland last night confirmed it has passed on the email to gardai in Pearse Street garda station in Dublin, but would not disclose the exact nature of the threat. The source of the email has not yet been established, but it was not sent from any official ESB or trade union internet address.

Ministers said they believe Mr Ogle is spoiling for a fight.

"We have people telling us 'we voted because we were told it was the thing to support our union. We didn't think we were going to have a f**king strike'. But he's got that control now," one minister told the Sunday Independent.

Another minister added: "He has a group of trade union committee members that might see sense."

However, Mr Ogle claimed "ill-informed and inflammatory" comments from ministers last week had worsened the dispute.

"The personalisation of this dispute has been hugely damaging," he told the Sunday Independent.

"Pat Rabbitte has done more to make a strike on Monday week possible because I am trying to keep people talking," he said.

Speaking to the Sunday Independent, Mr Rabbitte said there would "inevitably be stoppages" if there was a strike.

"I don't want to give the impression a dispute is inevitable because I find it unthinkable that there ought to be a stoppage for any period, given the fact that every defined-benefit pension scheme in the country has a hole in it arising from the crash," he said.

Mr Rabbitte said the ESB was one of the most robust "if not the most robust" defined-benefit pension scheme in Ireland.

Irish Small and Medium Enterprises Association (ISME) chief executive Mark Fielding said retailers across the country who employ 275,000 people are fearful of the strike.

He revealed many small businesses have called in workers to do extra shifts this week to get orders completed before the threatened cuts.

"It's not just lights and cash tills. It could cost retailers millions. And of course we have had no clarity on where and how long power will be off," he said.

Irish Farmers' Association deputy president Eddie Downey said any electricity strike will have a significant impact on farming, the food sector and rural Ireland.

The dairy, livestock and poultry sectors, along with horticulture, which is at its busiest in the run up to Christmas, will also be hit hard.

Mr Downey also said he was concerned about the impact of power cuts on people living in isolated rural areas.

"If the countryside is plunged into darkness there will be a real need for rural communities to come together to look out for those who are elderly and isolated," he said.

Meanwhile, restaurateurs are preparing for the power cuts at the height of their busiest period.

The owner of one of Dublin's busiest restaurants, Gillian Ronan of Town Bar and Grill, has been putting preventative measures in place.

"It would be catastrophic for business so we have hired two generators at great cost to make sure the restaurant will get through it."

Sunday Independent

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