Workers want ‘justice and fair play’

“WE’RE not giving up without a fight.”

That was the warning last night from defiant factory workers who face the dole queues today, without redundancy payments, when their jobs are axed.

The group of 35 workers at the Vita Cortex plant in Cork are caught in a stand-off between their employers and NAMA. The money for the redundancies has been frozen in the accounts of a sister company which is controlled by NAMA.

Local Labour party TD Ciaran Lynch, who has described the position the workers find themselves in as “intolerable” has called on NAMA to carry out an extensive financial examination of the wider Vita Cortex company structure. He believes that would clarify the interconnectivity between different operations within the wider company.

SIPTU official Anne Eager, who spent yesterday with the workers, said, whether the money was controlled by Vita Cortex or by NAMA, it should pay for the workers’ redundancy.

The workers called for “justice and fair play” and pleaded with political leaders to bring pressure to bear to ensure funds are released to pay their €1.2 million redundancy package — 2.9 weeks per year of service for each worker.

They were still clinging to hope last night that last-ditch talks in Dublin between Vita Cortex managing director Ian Kirby and NAMA officials would bring a breakthrough.

The staff, who between them have 847 years of service, spent yesterday on the factory floor waiting for news.

Cal O’Leary, 62, who has worked for Vita Cortex for 44 years, said they feel cheated and betrayed.

“We’ve been let down big time,” he said. “We got a kick in the ass. It’s not fair people going out of here with nothing. We’re devastated, absolutely devastated.”

John Daly, who has worked for the company for 47 years, said NAMA’s refusal to release funds came like a “bombshell”.

“We were led to believe that NAMA was looking on our case favourably,” he said. “Then, when it was announced in the Dáil on Wednesday, it came totally out of the blue. Compared to the amounts NAMA is handling and paying to developers, this is not even a drop in the ocean.

“The amount is relatively modest. You’d imagine that under the circumstances — up to 40 people walking out the door a week before Christmas with nothing — it seems incredible that nobody can actually do anything, or doesn’t want to.

“Obviously somebody can do something but I’d wish to heavens they’d hurry up and do the damn thing.”

Sean Kelleher, who also has 47 years of service, said staff were 100% dedicated and loyal to the company.

“People were happy at their work. It was a good place to work at one stage,” he said. “I’m hoping that something will be done — by the politicians and everybody involved. We’re not looking for a huge amount of money.”

Their colleagues — Helen Crowley, who has worked at Vita for 26 years; Martina Anderson, 22; Regina Hickey, 21; and Lillian O’Donoghue, 34 — sat on foam blocks nearby.

“We’re just shocked,” said Lillian. Catherine McCabe summed up their mood: “The politicians don’t give a shit about us.”

They will join long-serving colleagues, including John Power (42 years), Denis Ryan (40), Alan Walsh (43), Mick O’Brien (40), Greg Marshall (37), Tim Burke (43) and Tom Ronan (43), in a meeting with Ms Eager today.

NAMA ‘legally cannot’ pay cash to staff

VITA Cortex (Ind), the foam packaging manufacturing company based on the Kinsale Road in Cork city, is a subsidiary of holding company Vita Five Five Ltd, chaired by Tipperary businessman Jack Ronan.

He secured a €10m loan from AIB five years ago to buy Vita Cortex from its previous shareholders.

But it was announced on September 16 last that the manufacturing operation was closing and transferring to Athlone.

In a statement yesterday, Mr Ronan said the Cork plant had been making substantial losses since 2009 with no prospect of a return to profitability.

“The level of ongoing losses at the Cork site would ultimately have forced the whole of the Vita Cortex group into liquidation in 2012,” he said.

In the meantime, the original AIB loan was transferred to NAMA in late 2010.

Mr Ronan said the Vita Cortex group has three major assets — industrial properties in Cork, Belfast and Dublin, and €2.5m of Vita Cortex cash on deposit — which are pledged as security against the loan facility in the name of Vita Five Five Ltd.

The cash is in an AIB account in the name of Vita Cortex (Dublin) Ltd — another subsidiary of the holding company.

Mr Ronan said the group cannot access this money because NAMA has a lien over the deposit account.

He said Vita Cortex (Ind) requested on October 10 that NAMA release €1.22m from the account to pay redundancy to the workers.

But on Wednesday, NAMA refused to release the money, stating that the loan is not linked to the Cork business.

NAMA says the money must be used to pay the parent company’s multimillion-euro debts.

A spokesman for NAMA said the company with the cash and the company making the workers redundant were two separate legal entities and it legally cannot pay out the money to the workers.

He said NAMA has no financial relationship with the company which is ceasing production, and had no involvement in the decision to make the workers redundant.

But yesterday, Mr Ronan said as far as he is concerned, the money was earned by the Vita Cortex (Ind) workers and the company, and the workers facing the axe today are entitled to it.

“The Vita Cortex group is unable to secure funding from other sources as all the assets of the group are already pledged to NAMA and so the only way the company will be in a position to pay the redundancies is if NAMA agrees to release the company’s funds,” he said.

Picture: Caught in the middle: 35 workers from the Vita Cortex manufacturing facility in Cork city spent yesterday on the factory floor. Picture: Denis Scannell

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