Monday 21 January 2019

Waterford sale seals the fate of 500 crystal workers

Government criticised for 'abandoning staff'

Workers clear up at the Waterford Crystal visitor centre after their sit-in ended earlier this week
Workers clear up at the Waterford Crystal visitor centre after their sit-in ended earlier this week
Workers at a protest meeting in the Tower Hotel
Master cutter Terence O'Neill at the Kilbarry factory, which may never see crystal production again

Conor Kane

THE fate of almost 500 workers at one of the country's longest-surviving and most famous businesses was finally sealed yesterday with the sale of Waterford Crystal to an American venture capital firm.

The iconic company, which once employed more than 3,000 people in Waterford, will soon have just 176 employees in the city.

However, even those jobs and the future of crystal manufacturing in Waterford remains far from certain.

Around 485 workers were made redundant at the end of January, on top of hundreds more who lost their jobs in cutbacks in recent years.

They are now counting on the Government to save their pension scheme -- or on the European Commission to step in and take action.

While a consortium of business leaders is currently in talks to set up a new crystal production company, that process is still at an early stage.

The new owners of the Waterford Wedgwood group have made it clear they are not interested in using the existing Waterford manufacturing facility.

The Government last night came in for stinging criticism for what one worker representative described as, "no serious support" for the crystal staff in their hour of need.

Furnaces

"We sat in there for eight weeks, and kept the furnaces going in the hope that somebody would step in. At the end of the day, there was no serious support behind us. We had the total support of the local community, but nothing from the government," union shop steward Joe Kelly told the Irish Independent.

KPS Capital Partners have set up a new company, WWRD Holdings Ltd, to take ownership of some of the Waterford Wedgwood assets, including the world-renowned crystal and pottery brands.

Overseas commercial interests in North America, Japan, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and Australia are also included in the deal, which was finalised yesterday by company receiver David Carson of Deloitte Ireland.

While WWRD Holdings will continue to use the Waterford Crystal brand, it is unclear where the crystal will actually be made. What is certain is that the manufacturing plant in Waterford is not part of the acquisition. Speculation has centred on eastern Europe and South America as possible locations for future production.

Mr Carson said he was "pleased" to announce the completion of the deal, but while his statement indicated that the crystal and ceramic brands will continue, it made no reference to the retention of jobs in Waterford.

Agreement

A transitory agreement confirmed last Sunday by the Unite trade union, which represents the majority of workers in the plant, indicated that 176 workers would be kept on for the moment -- mainly in the administration and tourism side.

However, the jobs of those 176 will be reviewed after six months and it is feared more will be let go.

The tradition of crystal making in Waterford now appears to rest on the consortium of local business leaders who are in talks with representatives of the work force. The union leaders hope their proposal will result in the retention of Waterford Crystal manufacturing in the city.

However, that process was dealt a further blow yesterday by the death, after a long illness, of Waterford businessman Nicky Fewer (60), who was leading that consortium.

Meanwhile, union leaders have renewed their call on the government to secure workers' pensions, with the company's scheme currently about €110m in deficit.

Unite and ICTU may take action against the Government over claims it failed to comply with European legislation on pension protection.

An eight-week sit-in, which started when crystal production finished at the end of January, was wound down on Sunday and Monday by employees. Part of the deal agreed between the union, the receiver and KPS involves a €10m ex-gratia payment to the 400 to 500 workers losing their jobs, to be divided based on length of service at the Kilbarry plant.

The new chief-executive officer of WWRD Holdings, Pierre de Villemejane, said that yesterday marked "the beginning of an exciting new era" for Waterford Wedgwood.

All companies under the Waterford Wedgwood umbrella went into receivership and administration on January 5.

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