The article below first appeared in the Irish Times.
Funny how life goes on. In the Vita Cortex factory on Cork’s Kinsale Road, where 32 former workers have been staging a sit-in since it closed on December 16, life’s vagaries continue. One of the protesters became the father of twins on St Stephen’s Day. Another received a visit from his new-born grandson. Sleeping arrangements have been segregated into men’s, women’s and married couples’ quarters. Every time it rains, drops splatter from a leak in the roof.
Two things are sustaining the protesters. One is the kindness of their fellow citizens. Such has been the abundance of sweets and biscuits from well-wishers that, if things get truly dire, they could open a confectionery shop. Members of the fire brigade have been delivering breakfasts they cooked down at the station. A taxi company has ferried the occupiers to their homes free of charge for interludes with their families. Restaurants have run meals-on-wheels, and florists made holly centrepieces for the Christmas dinner table. Musicians came with their guitars for a sing-song. A stream of visitors have shown solidarity, including Jimmy Barry Murphy, hurling god of the Rebel County.
The second reason the workers will not quit is because they’ll be damned if their fellow citizens pay the debts owed to them by the factory’s proprietor. Since the Christmas holiday period ended, they have been trying to establish the extent of Jack Ronan’s business empire. What they have discovered so far has infuriated them.
In addition to Vita Cortex, which operates on eight sites north and south of the Irish border, Ronan has a 300-acre stud farm, two creches, various plots of development land, a piggery, an extensive residential property portfolio, a retail park, forestry, a couple of supermarkets, a furniture factory in England, and a boar station. He has 27 directorships listed with the Companies Registration Office and won the Irish Field “breeder of the year” award last August for a racehorse called Cape Blanco.
Word reached the protesters that on St Stephen’s morning, while they shivered on beds fashioned from the industrial foam they used to make for computer packaging and airline seats, Ronan was riding out with his local fox hunt.
Apocryphal or not, Oscar Wilde’s vision of the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable serves as the perfect metaphor for the impasse.
The workers want the redundancy package the company previously offered them, comprising 2.9 weeks’ pay for every year they have worked. Two of them have each been there for 47 years and between all 32 workers, their duration of service amounts to almost 900 years. The bill for the promised terms would be €1.2m, 60% of which would be rebated to the company under the social insurance fund operated by the Department of Social Protection. Ergo, the net cost to Ronan’s company would be €480,000.
An examination of his business activities suggests he can afford it. Web Circle, an investment holding company of which he is a joint director, records a €700,000 debt to Vita Cortex in its latest filed accounts. Ronan, however, says the National Asset Management Agency (Nama) should pay his workers as the agency has a lien over monies held by a Ronan-associated company in relation to a €10m loan he took out from AIB in headier times.
Note that both Nama and AIB are owned by the citizens. Vita Cortex has submitted an “inability to pay” application to the Department of Social Protection which, if accepted, will mean the 32 ex-workers will get only the statutory payment of two weeks per year [and one further week’s pay].
The company has deployed both the carrot and the stick against the protesters. At Christmas, they were offered €1,500 each to temporarily leave the premises so that machinery could be removed to Athlone, to where the manufacturing operation has been moved. Nobody succumbed.
Last week, the company warned the protesters they were putting the jobs of other Vita Cortex staff in jeopardy by creating bad publicity. This has echoes of Sean FitzPatrick, in the dying days of his Anglo Irish Bank, exhorting the government to penalise child benefit recipients to save the banks.
Nama, while “empathising” with the workers, says that the transferred loan was unrelated to Vita Cortex in Cork and that there is no legal basis for the agency to use assets belonging to another company to pay the redundancy bill.
Nama is correct. Footing redundancy bills for bailed-out borrowers offloading uninvolved businesses is the start of the slippery slope. The state, though, cannot shrug off its moral duty. It owes Vita Cortex’s workers big time because it has abjectly failed to protect them.
The immediate thing that should be done is for President Michael D Higgins to go to Cork and sit in that factory with the workers to give voice to the people’s abhorrence of the injustice being done to them.
Second, the government should stop lecturing and start acting. Richard Bruton, the jobs minister, has advised the workers to take their case to the Labour Relations Commission. It seems Pontius Pilate is alive and well, and living in Merrion Street.
Ronan is personally protected because Vita Cortex is a limited liability company, an essential corporate prophylactic.
But the state itself is in business with Ronan, as a shareholder in the guise of Enterprise Ireland in another of his companies, Print Works, also located on the Kinsale Road. This relationship alone behoves the state to ensure that Ronan pays his workers what they are owed.
While Nama has reasonably distanced itself, other state agencies have been inexplicably invisible in this imbroglio. Vita Five Five, which owns Vita Cortex and is chaired by Ronan, has failed to file annual returns which were due last September and are now beyond the grace period.
What is being done about this? Why isn’t Paul Appleby, the director of corporate enforcement, investigating Ronan’s ability to pay the redundancy, instead of leaving it to the workers themselves?
After three years of lamentations about how light-touch regulation caused the ruination of the economy, it beggars belief that, once more, the state fiddles while the people pay the price.
As Emily Dickinson pithily put it:
“Faith is a fine invention For gentlemen who see;
But microscopes are prudent In an emergency.”