A meeting billed as one of the most crucial in the whole Waterford Crystal saga has been scheduled for the Tower Hotel on Sunday morning.
Organised by the Unite union, the mass gathering of workers at 11am will seek to agree a way forward in terms of whether or not to reluctantly row in behind KPS Capital Partners’ proposals for the business.
Sources say what’s sure to be an emotionally-charged meeting must be ‘a decision-making one’. The terms of the KPS takeover and its implications for jobs, redundancy and ex-gratia payments, the pension fund shortfall crux, and the future of the plant’s tank furnace, will all be on the agenda.
The company’s new owners, who agreed a deal with the Receiver on February 27, are keen to ‘move on’, and have asked the union to come to a conclusion one way or the other.
Staff will also discuss whether the occupation of the Kilbarry factory, which has been ongoing since the Receiver moved to wind up operations on January 30, should continue until such time as the New York-based private equity firm meets its responsibilities in full.
As one employee put it, the sit-in “is all we have to hold onto”; that and the tank furnace, which workers have been keeping going for the past two months for fear that it will never be relit once it goes out.
In taking over certain of Waterford Wedgwood’s Irish, British and overseas assets, KPS merely intend retaining sales and back office staff at Kilbarry, as well as those workers in the visitors’ centre.
This would see around 250 jobs remain in Waterford, but critically none in the factory itself, with all manufacturing of Crystal-branded products to be outsourced to contractors. The property incorporating the plant and equipment is still owned by the Receiver and could be sold to pay off debts to creditors in due course.
Unsurprisingly resistance to the new regime remains strident. The extra €10 million KPS has offered in compensation to the 480 workers being laid off is viewed as completely inadequate. If the ex-gratia monies were distributed evenly, it would amount to a top-up ranging from a few thousand euros up to about €10,000 for those employees there the longest: in effect less than a third of an average week’s wages per year of service, in addition to statutory redundancy.
However, Kevin Foley of the Labour Relations Commission is resigned to examining some sort of equitable share-out scheme with union officials.
Another issue for debate on Sunday will be the somewhat vague interest shown by a group of local businesspeople in keeping the plant going. The ‘Prestige Co’ consortium, headed up by architect and City Freeman Nicky Fewer, have tentatively put forward the possibility of leasing the factory to make high-value stemware (which would be sold to KPS) in tandem with an improved tourist centre.
However, this alternative, which would be dependent on State support, appears remote, as does the prospect of a Government rescue package in the current economic climate – despite the local People Before Profit Alliance calling for the nationalisation of Waterford Crystal.