Shane Ross

Saturday 2 August 2014

Jack is right - Greyhound's gone to the dogs

Published 13/07/2014|00:00

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STRIKE: Siptu workers on the picket line outside the Greyhound household waste depot on Crag Avenue in Clondalkin. Photo: Frank McGrath

There is something iffy about the Isle of Man. No doubt it is a place that offers good food and beautiful beaches, tranquillity, motorcycles and museums.

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The Isle is a hotspot for tourists and a welcoming residence for the idle rich. Older people, perfectly-legally, retire there to take advantage of the benign tax regime. But when you hear that shareholders in a business have decided to relocate their holdings to this tax haven, you are entitled to wonder - why do they do it?

Perish the thought. Bury your suspicions. Even if businesses do not locate in the middle of the Irish Sea in search of accountability and transparency, they probably have a good reason. Surely it must be for their shareholders, or their customers or their workforce?

The Isle of Man has resurfaced in the current bitter industrial relations controversy at Greyhound Recycling.

Four years ago, Greyhound owners Brian and Michael Buckley transferred their shares to limited liability companies on the island. The tax laws there do not force such companies to publish their accounts. Greyhound has taken advantage of this.

Jump to no conclusions about this row. The Greyhound dispute could turn a free marketeer into a Marxist in minutes. It has all the ingredients of an old-fashioned trade union battling it out with a struggling enterprise.

Supporters of the workforce have used outdated phrases like "scab labour" and "lockout" to blacken their opponents. All of us, especially those of us inclined to cheer for entrepreneurs like Brian and Michael Buckley, should hesitate before following our instincts. We should not immediately believe that we are on the wrong side of a spat just because we are lining up behind left-wing TDs Clare Daly and Joan Collins.

Last week I had to swallow hard. I listened to the words of Siptu leader Jack O'Connor. I had to admit that the bearded one was right. That ended the habit of a lifetime.

Greyhound staff tell a tale of turning up for work on June 17 and being told to sign a new deal accepting a 35pc pay cut . They refused. They insist they have been locked out of their Clondalkin plant which is suddenly crawling with bulky security men. The bosses have now employed agency ("scab") labour at far lower rates.

The Buckley brothers insist they cannot afford the wages. They plead there are now 14 competing waste companies in Dublin alone, that competition has ruined them and they face Armageddon. The staff can accept the cuts - or closure.

'Inability to pay' is normally a good reason for wage reductions. In Greyhound's case it merits challenge. These Greyhounds have form.

The company has seen good days. In 2009 it was listed in the Enterprise Ireland annual report as a business the grant-giving semi-state body supports. Admittedly, an imprimatur from EI often marks the kiss of death. In earlier years, Tanaiste Mary Harney opened its €15m "state of the art recycling and recovery facility". It seemed like a go-ahead enterprise with glittering prospects. It employed 150 people. Its press release at the opening boasted that the fundamental principle of Greyhound Recycling's business is "full transparent traceability".

Ahem. A claim not quite in keeping with a later move to take advantage of the anti-transparency laws of the Isle of Man. One of the joys of Greyhound's financial manoeuvres is that its detailed profit and loss accounts cannot be seen by prying creditors, let alone inquisitive employees.

Greyhound could be forgiven for one lapse, but it has other questions to answer about the not too distant past. In 2009, after it had been given a lucrative contract by Iarnrod Eireann, it faced a potentially lethal expose about its relationship with this bankrupt semi-state. It emerged at an Oireachtas Transport Committee meeting that Greyhound had grossly overcharged Iarnrod Eireann for waste services.

Iarnrod Eireann's boss, Dick Fearn, admitted at the meeting that "the money charged [by Greyhound] did not tally with the actual work done", sensationally adding that there were "discrepancies between the amount invoiced and the actual work done".

Greyhound was forced to settle with Iarnrod Eireann for no less than €1.3m in compensation. The payment was meant to remain confidential.

The workforce could do a lot with that €1.3m today.

Despite this disgraceful episode, Greyhound went from strength to strength. It won further State largesse, most notably the South Dublin County Council (2011) and Dublin City Council (2012) waste collection service contracts.

Greyhound has been involved in unwelcome controversy ever since. Its cavalier attitude to the environment has landed it in the courts on several occasions.

In recent years it has found itself in front of the beaks for multiple pollution offences. In 2011 it was found guilty of three charges. Following the convictions, it was visited nine times by the Environment Protection Agency's (EPA) inspectors.

Last December Greyhound was again heavily fined for repeat offences at its Clondalkin site. It is constantly under surveillance from the pollution police.

The Buckley brothers' company faces court cases and pay fines with gay abandon - but somehow fails to find the money to maintain the workforce.

In their most recent encounter with the authorities, both directors were spared fines and given the Probation Act - but were forced to pay €5,000 each to children's charities Laura Lynn and Jack and Jill Foundation.

Their escape followed a special plea from their lawyers that a conviction might affect the directors' ability to visit the Greyhound office in the United States.

The Buckley brothers have led a charmed life. Somehow, despite their record, they have consistently won lucrative work from the State and local authorities.

They have been indulged by the courts, they sailed close to the wind in their dealings with Iarnrod Eireann, Twitter is littered with customer complaints about them, they have hidden behind the protection of the Isle of Man.

Greyhound is a company operating at will in an unregulated industry. It gives small business, the engine of the Irish economy, a bad name. It makes free marketeers ashamed of the free market. The duty of good employers - not just to themselves but to their workforce - is anathema to them. It is a miracle how they have maintained their licence.

It is difficult to write the words, but the Buckleys and Greyhound have achieved the impossible: Jack O'Connor and Siptu are right.

*******

Whatever about Greyhound's future, there is little likelihood of AIB ever losing its banking licence.

Question: Which currency is the most expensive to extract from an AIB dollar account? Sterling? Euros? Japanese yen?

No. You guessed it - the most expensive currency to withdraw from an AIB dollar account is the dollar!

A constant companion of mine has a dollar account in AIB. A few weeks ago she wanted to withdraw a few dollars to take to the US.

Guess what the bank told her: there is only one way you can take dollars out of an AIB dollar account. You must convert the dollars into euro for the usual fee, then change the euro back into dollars for another fee.

Knowing the penal exchange rates at AIB, she exploded.

She is still gobsmacked. AIB refused to budge. Bet it would never happen to a corporate client.

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