Longtime love story at Kerry factory in danger of going sour for good
Published 19/01/2014 | 02:30
It is being hailed as a love affair but like many a good match, the Liebherrs' connection with Killarney, Co Kerry, was not without its matchmakers.
And this week as a dispute between management and workers escalates with Siptu members' rejection of Labour Court recommendations aimed at solving a four-year pay claim, fears are rife the relationship has soured irreparably.
When Dr Hans Liebherr came to Ireland in the late Fifties, he already had a suitor in the Department of Industry and Commerce that was anxious to attract foreign direct investment into the country. The department had procured a site in Mallow, Co Cork, for the German industrialist and when he came over to visit he was a guest of a State that was anxious to impress him and which put him up at the Great Southern Hotel in Killarney -- now the Malton Hotel -- a suitable abode for such an eminent guest.
It was then that the former chairman of the Urban District Council, Teddy Clifford, undoubtedly saw his opportunity and invited a few of the town's most prominent citizens to join them for dinner, and together they wooed the German with the charms of the area.
Nobody quite knows why Liebherr decided to base his container crane operations in Kerry, where a road now carries his name, except that he liked what he saw and chose to locate there in 1958.
Today, the company employs 38,000 worldwide and 670 at its Killarney plant, where it has an annual wage bill of €40m. It certainly didn't seem to make economic sense and was a decision based more on sentiment than anything else.
What we do know is that the eccentric decision has brought hundreds of skilled manufacturing jobs to the county over the past half century, providing jobs for several generations.
In return, Liebherr got a good, skilled workforce and dedicated employees who take it as a matter of pride that all orders are delivered on time.
And that connection with Killarney has continued with Dr Liebherr's family since his death in 1993. They have poured a little less than €30m into their three hotels -- The Europe, Dunloe Castle, and Ard na Sidhe -- in the past few years and the same amount into the factory extension in Fossa.
The company also purchased the Lackabane golf course last year for €5m.
Fine Gael Senator Tom Sheahan angered Siptu workers at the plant when he took to the airwaves on Friday and laid the blame for a change of sentiment at the union's door.
But Mr Sheahan's remarks on Radio Kerry were not too far off of what a lot of people in the area are thinking.
"Everyone in the Killarney area is just worried," he said. "They're just bracing themselves. . . We're told Liebherr is re-evaluating its operations in Kerry in light of this dispute. I know for a fact there were 28 new contract staff due to start in January and that hasn't happened because of the uncertainty."
Apart from the factory's own workforce, it's estimated a further 500 jobs in related industries and services are also dependent on the plant.
If Liebherr goes, it will leave a gaping hole of €70m in the local economy.
Workers who spoke to the Sunday Independent say the 2.5pc pay increase the company agreed to pay, backdated to May 2012, that was ironed out at the Labour Court was not worth what was expected of them in return in changes to work practices.
They say there is no backlash from the 370 workers outside of Siptu, who would also benefit from a pay rise and are happy to let their union do the negotiating.
They say they've never been busier and there is a sense of complacency that the company is not going to pull out of Killarney after investing heavily in the new extension.
According to Sheahan, they would do well to heed history and the lessons learnt from the closure of the Pretty Polly plant in Killarney.
"I'm going to call a spade a spade here and I believe a lot of the blame lies with the unions. The only other industrial dispute I can remember here finished with the closure of Pretty Polly," he said.
"I'm not coming down on the workers but this was negotiated by the union in the Labour Court and then for it to be rejected I find very hard to take," he said.
Liebherr has always been considered a good employer in Killarney. Last September, when it advertised 14 apprenticeships, it received 435 applications.
The previous year, they had received about 600 applications for a similar number of positions from people wanting to become fully qualified electricians, welders and fitters.
But Sheahan says Liebherr was always seen as being as good as the public service or better as a place of employment.
"Anyone who got a job in Liebherr was made for life. In the last three years, the public sector have gone through three pay cuts and this dispute is over a pay increase. That's the parallel I'm looking at," he said.
It is also understood Isolde Liebherr, daughter of its founder, was "personally hurt" when she arrived at the factory in November with a group of business people and came upon the one-day strike staged by Siptu members.
Sheahan said he just hoped the union understood the gravity of what's at stake and what Killarney without Liebherr would be.
"Many people throughout the country are shocked as to why Liebherr are in Killarney at all," he added.
"Realistically, if I was running Liebherr Ireland, I would be looking to set up in a country where steel, their main raw material, is produced.
"They're importing every bit of that steel, drawing it to Killarney, manufacturing it there and then exporting it out of Fenit.
"There are governments and countries that would roll out the red carpet for Liebherr in the morning to get that kind of industry."
But decisions are made in boardrooms and a company started by a German that's now headquartered in tax-efficient Switzerland is going to have little truck with sentiment and could call time on this soured love story.