While St. Patrick’s Day may be a time of celebration it also offers an opportunity to highlight a factory sit-in taking place in the Republic of Ireland that is now just over three months old. It is a sorry story of good people being denied redundancy payments. The dignity the protesters have shown throughout their sit-in should serve as an inspiration to those whose employment rights are under threat.
The protest began in the Vita Cortex factory in Cork in the run up to Christmas last year. On December 16th the 32 employees of the plant were informed that they were to be made redundant with immediate effect but without any redundancy payments. This was particularly shocking given the commitment they had shown to the company. Between them they had worked at the plant, which produces foam products for furniture, for a total of 847 years, some of the longest serving had been there for over 40 years.
Since then the former workers have been present in the factory continuously – including on what must have been a particularly heartrending Christmas Day. They have promised not to leave until they are given the full payments due to them. The conditions are tough. They sleep in a cold drafty factory. Mice can often be heard scuttling across the factory floor. However, the tedium and monotony of their time at the plant has been broken by the massive swell of support for the campaign.
The former workers have received messages of support from figures such as Mary Robinson, Sir Alex Ferguson, Christy Moore, Cillian Murphy and Paul McGrath. Indeed, it was McGrath who captured the essence of the situation when he said: “I thought Ireland was better than this”. In February, 5000 people took to the streets of Cork in support of the sit-in.
Recently the Irish Labour Party’s leader, Eamon Gilmore, also Ireland’s Tánaiste (deputy prime minister) and foreign minister, met a delegation of former workers and promised to do what he could to help. He also recognised that three months of living on a factory floor was taking its toll on the workers, 90% of whom are between 50 and 65 years old. Although the government has paid some money to those made redundant it is not the amount they should have received from Vita Cortex which has recently paid out €2.5 million to three shareholders.
The former workers’ cause is just and important. This is not only because of the appalling behaviour of their former employers. There are wider issues at stake. Some unscrupulous companies in Ireland will be watching closely how this stand-off will be resolved to see how far they can go in their dealings with employees. Labour Party members in the UK should take note because we need to be vigilant about the erosion of workers’ rights both home and abroad. It is a trend that Unite has described as a growing tendency for workers to be ‘left in the cold’ after they have been made redundant. In light of this the Labour Party Irish Society unanimously voted in favour of a motion in support of the former workers’ protest.
The Vita Cortex workers did not ask for this but they are at the front line of a battle to protect workers’ rights. I urge those who believe that employment rights need to be protected to do what they can to help the campaign.
For more information on how you can support their campaign please visit the Vita Cortex workers’ website – http://vitacortexworkers.wordpress.com/how-you-can-support-the-protest/