A national symbol of workers’ resistance

As the Vita Cortex workers face into the 50th day of their sit-in at the former foam factory over redundancy payments, there appears to be no end in sight to the dispute, writes Eoin English.

HELEN Crowley chokes back tears as she beds down on a dirty foam block for another long night on the freezing factory floor.

“I don’t look into the future too much because I just can’t go there. I just take it one day at a time,” she says, as she and her Vita Cortex colleagues face into the 50th day of their sit-in at the former Cork foam factory in their fight for redundancy payments.

With Taoiseach Enda Kenny due to visit the city today for a series of engagements, Helen and her friend Martina Anderson, who is in a sleeping bag alongside her, make a direct plea to him to intervene.

“If Enda Kenny was here now, I would ask him to please help me, and my friends, to get out of this place. We’ve been here for 50 days, and it’s not a nice place to be,” says Helen.

Even though their voices crack with emotion, and difficult as the conditions are, they and their colleagues remain determined to continue the protest until they get their money.

Nine days before Christmas, Helen and Martina were among the 32 workers who lost their jobs when the Vita Cortex plant shut.

Once a manufacturing success, the plant has become a national symbol of resistance as workers rise up against wrong.

The actions of the Vita Cortex 32 has struck a chord with the nation, seething over bank bailouts, bond repayments, huge civil service pension payouts, and how the burden of paying for the mistakes of a few has been lumped on the shoulders of the many.

Vita Cortex paid a 2.9 week per year of service redundancy package to several employees over the past three years — the two weeks minimum statutory entitlement plus a 0.9 week ex gratia payment.

The Vita Cortex 32, who have between them almost 900 years of service, expected the same.

The cost of the package would be just over €1.2m — 60% of which would be rebated to the company under the social insurance fund operated by the Department of Social Protection.

The cost to Vita Cortex owner Jack Ronan would be about €372,000.

However, there was a complication.

Nama had frozen several of Mr Ronan’s assets, including a bank account of a sister company he said should be used to pay the redundancy.

The company said it asked Nama to release €1.22m from the frozen account to cover the redundancy.

Just two weeks before the company closed, the workers were asked to supply their bank details so redundancy funds could be transferred directly into their accounts.

Then came the bombshell during a Dáil debate two days before the closure that Nama would not release the money.

It said the funds in one company could not be used to pay the debts associated with another unrelated company — even though both were controlled by Mr Ronan.

The workers, caught in the middle, felt they had no option but to begin a sit-in and fight for their redundancy rights.

The company has since submitted an “inability to pay” application to the Department of Social Protection, which means the taxpayer will have to foot the bill.

The workers have for 50 days insisted that the taxpayer should not be held liable, and that Mr Ronan can and should be made pay.

They inspired staff at La Senza to stage a sit-in after they were left without wages when that company went into administration. That issue was resolved within days. For the Vita Cortex 32, the fight continues.

POLITICAL PRESSURE

It’s 3am on day 47 of their sit-in and John Daly, who worked with the company for 47 years, is one of six former workers who have volunteered to do the lonely night shift.

He plays darts as a small electric storage heater struggling to heat the room trips a fuse — again.

“I thought we’d be sorted before Christmas. Never in my wildest dreams did I think we’d be here this long,” he says.

Tim Burke, who joined the company in 1968, paces the floor.

“I was shocked to think we’d have to sit in at all,” he says. “I feel fierce let down, fierce let down.”

When the Dáil resumed after Christmas, and following a rally outside Leinster House, political pressure mounted on Mr Ronan.

The Labour Relations Commission intervened with the organisation’s chief Kieran Mulvey and its head of conciliation, Kevin Foley, agreeing to chair talks between the sides.

Even though the amount involved in this dispute is small in LRC terms, Nama’s involvement, and the dangerous precedent the dispute could set, was considered important enough for the LRC’s top men to get involved.

After the first day of talks, they hammered out an agreed strategy to end the sit-in.

The conciliation process was adjourned for 48 hours to give Mr Ronan time to identify an unencumbered asset and hand it over to Nama, which would allow the agency to release the €372,000 for the workers.

Mr Mulvey and Mr Foley returned to Cork two days later, expecting everything to be in place to allow them sign off on the deal. Mr Ronan, who had not attended the talks, failed to hold up his end of the bargain.

The union accused him of using the workers as “pawns” as he tried to use the issue in this dispute as leverage in his negotiations with Nama on his wider business interests.

Mr Ronan says he is still in talks with Nama. He has also denied the company ever agreed to make the ex gratia payment to the workers.

However, Siptu says its has records of meetings which detail the management’s offer of an agreed redundancy package of 2.9 weeks in total, and records of the company’s explanation of its discussions with Nama in which it said it wanted the release of €1.2m to meet the agreed package of 2.9 weeks per year for each employee.

As of last night, there appeared to be no end in sight.

UNITED FRONT

Over the past 50 days, some workers have celebrated births in their families. Others have mourned deaths.

Helen’s tears are a sign of the strain she and all the workers are under — but they remain united.

“We’re not giving up,” says Sean Kelleher. A Vita Cortex veteran with 47 years’ service, he says: “We are getting support from all over Ireland. But we are just taking this day by day. Everyone’s watching us.”

So angry are their supporters, they gathered in the factory canteen on Tuesday to discuss plans for a mass rally in Cork City on Feb 11.

The canteen is adorned with messages of goodwill messages of support continue to flood in from around the world via Facebook and Twitter.

Human rights activist Noam Chomsky and former president Mary Robinson are among the high-profile figures who have pledged support.

The workers say they have been overwhelmed by the support.

Christy Moore has agreed to perform a benefit gig for them in Cork next Friday.

However, the workers feel trying to embarrass Mr Ronan into doing the right thing just hasn’t worked.

They are being encouraged to target his wider business interests and as one supporter put it, hit him where it will hurt most — in his pocket.

They all want the politicians, who they feel have forgotten about them in recent weeks, to respond with legislation to ensure employers can never treat workers like this again.

A sign in the canteen window today will show the workers are on day 50 of the sit-in.

In a room just outside the canteen, signs for day 51, day 52 and day 53 are already prepared.

The Ronan empire: From stallions to supermarkets

Millionaire Tipperary businessman Jack Ronan, who has told the State his Vita Cortex (Ind) company can’t afford to pay workers their 2.9 weeks’ redundancy, has a vast and diverse business empire.

He is, or has been listed as, a director of over 27 companies, including The Print Works Ltd and Web Circle Ltd. The State, through Enterprise Ireland, is a shareholder in The Print Works, based on Kinsale Road, Cork.

The latest set of publicly available abridged accounts for Vita Cortex (Ind), the business which directly employs the 32 workers involved in the sit-in, shows the company made a profit of €366,000 during the 16 months to the end of April 2010. The company was owed €1.6m by its debtors, including €712,000 due from Web Circle Ltd — a company of which Mr Ronan was a director and his family owned a sizeable share — for “management charges”.

Below are profiles of some of the properties and businesses with which Mr Ronan is connected.

Orchardstown Stud

Mr Ronan began a stud and cattle farming operation from the 300-acre stud farm near Clonmel, Co Tipperary, in 1994. It has bred good flat horses, including Cape Blanco, for which he won Irish Field breeder of the year last August.

KangaKare

Mr Ronan has a 50% share in this childcare, creche, Montessori, and playschool business. It has operations in Mount Oval, Cork, and Lamberton, Arklow, Co Wicklow.

La Plange Group

Mr Ronan is part owner and manager of the La Plange Group, a holding company for a number of subsidiaries including: &

* La Plange Ltd: Mr Ronan has a 50% share in this, which was the vehicle used for the taking out of loan facilities to finance the purchase of P&S Kavanagh in 2008.

* Peleton Ltd: Mr Ronan has a 50% share in Peleton Ltd, which owned and operated the SuperValu franchise at Unit 5, Poppyfield Retail Park, Clonmel.

* P&S Kavanagh Ltd: Mr Ronan has a 50% share in P&S Kavanagh Ltd which owns and operates the SuperValu franchise store at Dublin Road, Thomastown, Co Kilkenny.

* GBC Supermarkets Ltd: Has 50% share in business that owns the Clerihan Store, Ballyclerihan, Clonmel.

Property interests

* Five Acres Cottage, three-bed short-term holiday let, near the Rock of Cashel.

* A 15,000sq ft property at Fermoy, Co Cork, let to PIC Ireland for €25,000 a year.

* A three-bed apartment at Lancaster Gate, Cork.

* A three-bedroom town house in Douglas Close, Douglas, Cork.

* A four-bedroom detached house in Ballyhooly, Co Cork.

* A two-bedroom detached house in Woodlands, Arklow.

Peleton Partnership

This owns a five-acre site near Ballyclerihan village. Full planning was granted for 88 houses, but no development has taken place. It owns a 7.5-acre site at Abbey Farm, Cahir Road, Clonmel, bought in 2007. Planning was granted for 65 houses. It owns a one-acre site at Ticnock, Cobh, Co Cork. Planning for a 20,000sq ft retail warehouse, a garden centre, and carpark was secured but no development has taken place.

Poppyfield Partnership

Jack Ronan has a 33% stake in Poppyfield Partnership. It is the vehicle used to develop and own Poppyfield Retail Park and the Clonmel Park Hotel at Poppyfields.

Clerihan Developments

This firm is responsible for an unfinished housing and retail development at Cnoc Aoibheann in Ballyclerihan.

Ballincollig Partnership

Mr Ronan has a 30% share in this venture, a vehicle used to develop and own the West City Retail Park in Ballincollig, Co Cork. It has four retail warehouses, and includes Lidl as main anchor tenant.

PIC Ireland Ltd

PIC Ireland is a franchise of PIC, the largest pig biotechnology company in the world. Mr Ronan was one of two partners to acquire the PIC franchise in 1995.

As well as the Vita Cortex group of companies, Mr Ronan is, or was, a director of the following:

* Brad Holdings Ltd.

* Castleblake Transport Ltd.

* Danron Ltd.

* Enfer Scientific Ltd.

* Enfer Technology Ltd.

* Equine World Tty Ltd.

* Giro Properties Ltd.

* Glenfurrow Company (Isle of Man).

* Glenfurrow Company (New Zealand).

* Louis Ronan & Co Ltd.

* Meat Proteins (Ireland).

* Mega Save Investments Ltd.

* Mocklerstown Holdings Ltd.

* National By Products.

* Nicklewise Investments Ltd.

* Nutrigrow Ltd.

* PIC Ireland GTC Ltd.

* Rennard Pig Farms Ltd.

* Robinwave Ltd.

* Ron Pro Ltd.

* Ronan Technologies Ltd.

* Tara By Products Ltd.

* Tipperary Raceway Ltd.

* Vita Five Five Ltd.

* Wee Care Ltd.

Vita structure

Vita Cortex is a private limited company with an issued share capital of 100 shares. As of last year, it was an integrated company operating from eight sites around the country, offering the following services:

* Vita Clean (Blarney): It contracts manufactures for brand owners, makes own-label toiletries and sells chemical-free cleaning products. The operations had a combined revenue of €1m last year.

* Vita Bond (Athlone): It makes polyester pads and rolls used in bedding and upholstery products. The business is profitable.

* Belfast Conversion & Packaging: The business is profitable and is expected to remain so.

* Cork Conversion & Packaging: Main customers include Smurfit group, Carabay, CCI, Donoghue Packaging, DNM Turnkey, Atlas Box. The two operations are now run as a single unit in Belfast.

* Longhaul Technologies: Customers include Virgin Atlantic, Etihad, Eurocopter, as well as companies in Singapore, China, and Pakistan.

Its board of directors includes Jack Ronan, executive chairman, Ian Kirby, Sean McHenry, and Philip Fagan.

The history

The background of Vita Cortex

* 1958: The company was incorporated and named Cortex Proofers Ltd. It made polyurethane foam for use in the textile trade.

* 1959: Production starts.

* 1968: British Vita PLC, one of the largest polymer engineering companies and manufacturers of polyurethane foams in the world, forms an association with Cortex Proofers Ltd, taking a 50% shareholding. The company changes its name to Vita Cortex Ltd.

* 1973: Vita Cortex Ltd and Seafield Gentex, in a joint venture, open a plant in Athlone to make non-woven fibre.

* 1977: Vita Cortex Ltd acquires sole control of this operation. This company, operating under the name Vitabond Ltd, becomes one of the country’s largest suppliers of non-woven polyester fibre to the upholstery, apparel and healthcare industries.

* 1991: Vita Cortex Packaging Ltd is set up at Vicar’s Road, Cork. Its focus is on providing cushion packaging solutions for the electronic and healthcare industries.

* 1998: Longhaul Technologies is set up in Cork. It makes cushions for aircraft.

* 2000: A new warehouse is developed at the group’s Belfast base to drive the expansion of its wholesale furniture division.

* 2002: Cortex Packaging relocates to Kinsale Road, Cork. The Vicar’s Road site is upgraded to accommodate a new retail furniture outlet, Waters and Gold.

* 2004: Launch of the Cortex for Comfort range of beds and other products.

* 2007: Jack Ronan buys the company.

* 2009: The manufacture of foam ends in Cork. Foam is brought in from Dublin and England, and cut to size at the Cork plant.

2011

* September: Plans to close the Cork plant are announced. Siptu begins negotiations with the firm. It says a redundancy package of 2.9 weeks per year of service, paid to previous workers, is central to discussions.

* November: Concerns mount when Nama, which has frozen several of Mr Ronan’s assets, says it cannot release funds in the bank account of a sister company to pay the redundancy associated with another firm.

* Dec 16: The Vita Cortex plant on the old Kinsale Road in Cork closes. The workers begin their sit-in to secure their redundancy payments.

* Dec 24: Siptu president Jack O’Connor visits the workers.

* Dec 25: Workers and their families attend Christmas Mass in the plant’s canteen.

2012

* Jan 6: The situation is highlighted on The Late Late Show.

* Jan 12: The workers are joined by trade union activists for a rally outside Leinster House.

* Jan 17: The Labour Relations Commission chairs talks between the workers and Vita Cortex management. A strategy to end the sit-in is agreed and the talks are adjourned for 48 hours to finalise the deal.

* Jan 20: Talks resume but end without success when Mr Ronan fails to hand over an asset to Nama that would allow it to release the frozen funds to pay the redundancy.

* Jan 23: Workers escalate their campaign and mount a peaceful protest outside the home of Vita Cortex director, and former non-executive chairman, Sean McHenry. His son, John, says efforts are under way behind the scenes to resolve the dispute.

* Jan 30: Workers take their campaign to the gates of Mr Ronan’s 300-acre stud farm in Co Tipperary. He denies the company agreed to pay the ex gratia payment.

* Feb 3: Day 50 of the sit-in.

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