Saturday 24 March 2018

Redundancy money to be fast-tracked at Vita

Ralph Riegel

Ralph Riegel

THE Government is set to fast-track redundancy support for Vita Cortex workers amid mounting fears the Cork sit-in will escalate into a damaging national dispute.

Irish trade unions -- including Siptu and the TEEU -- warned that they will not tolerate workers losing out on redundancy entitlements through any operation of the National Asset Management Agency (Nama).

Vita Cortex owner Jack Ronan has insisted his firm is not in a position to pay the €1.2m in redundancy outstanding to 32 workers who, between them, boast 847 years of service.

Nama has repeatedly insisted that, while it sympathises with the plight of the protesting Cork workers, the issue of redundancy payments is strictly one for the Vita Cortex owners.

Nama also warned it cannot legally release €1.2m from €2.5m which was frozen in the account of a Vita Cortex sister company due to an outstanding €10m loan from AIB.

Workers have maintained a sit-in protest at the freezing Kinsale Road plant in Cork since December 16 when the factory shutdown -- including spending Christmas and New Year in the plant.

Trade union fury over the workers' plight has been exacerbated by revelations that Mr Ronan -- a wealthy Tipperary based businessman -- has been a director of 29 different companies and boasts a wide range of personal assets.

These include retail parks, luxury penthouse apartments, a sprawling 300-acre stud farm in Clonmel, Co Tipperary, a supermarket and an investment property in Wicklow as well as an agri-fertility business in north Cork.

One of Mr Ronan's properties -- the Sherkin Penthouse at Lancaster Gate in Cork -- is considered one of Cork's best addresses.

His Tipperary stud farm -- Orchardstown outside Clonmel -- is a sprawling 300 acre operation and has been associated with such famous racehorses as Cape Blanco, Danehill Dancer and Doctor Dino.

He was also associated with a bitterly contested bid to develop an incinerator in south Tipperary 10 years ago.

A spokesman said some of Mr Ronan's assets have "significant debts attached to them. Mr Ronan -- like many developers -- is working with Nama."

Mr Ronan has now bluntly warned that the controversy over the redundancies has brought the entire future of the group into doubt.

"The ongoing negative publicity has undermined our management's efforts to maintain the existing levels of business and the employment needed to service it, which is heading to further potential job losses in the very near future," a spokesman for Mr Ronan said.

"We restructured the group, resulting in the closure of the loss-making division at Vita Cortex (Cork) in order to save the group as a going concern and protect the 60-plus jobs which remain. The continued sit-in relating to the closure of the Cork plant and subsequent media coverage has led to the loss of some customers," he said.

Vita Cortex has now submitted documentation to the Department of Social Protection that it is not in a position to pay redundancy.

If accepted, it will mean workers secure State-supported redundancy of two weeks per year of service.

They are seeking 2.9 weeks' redundancy.

Cork TD and Fianna Fail finance spokesman, Michael McGrath, has demanded a detailed assessment of the firm's position -- and pointed out that Vita Cortex made a profit of €366,000 in the 16 months to April 2010.

"The accounts also show that the company was owed €1.6m by its debtors at the time, including an amount of €712,000 due from Web Circle Ltd -- a company of which Mr Ronan was a director and his family owned a large share -- for 'management charges'.

Enterprise Minister Richard Bruton said the Government will now do everything possible to help the workers.

"It (the company) has established that it is in a position where it is unable to pay. A decisive move has been made and hopefully this will bring about a resolution. The (State) system can respond now that a proper application has been submitted," Mr Bruton said.

Siptu and the TEEU warned that unless the workers get their redundancy payments, the row will be escalated into a national dispute -- and a protest will be staged in solidarity with the Vita Cortex workers outside the Dail this Thursday.

Siptu has dismissed Mr Ronan's explanation of his financial position as "simply incredible."

TEEU General Secretary Eamon Devoy vowed that the entire Irish trade union movement will support any escalation of the Vita Cortex protest into a national dispute.

"This is an exceptional dispute and it deserves the support of the entire Irish trade union movement. These are very brave workers -- they are an example to workers throughout the country," he told the Sunday Independent.

Employees have vowed to remain at the plant until their redundancy is paid.

Worker Alan Walsh has been at Vita Cortex for 43 years -- and the father-of-three said he hasn't received a cent in almost a month with his family now dependent on his wife's part-time work.

"I'll be 62 in three weeks time and my chances of ever getting work again are really slim," he said.

Sunday Independent

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