Ruling was ‘well worth waiting for’

Despite 39 years of work during which he paid about €78,000 in accumulated pension contributions into the retirement fund, Seán Maher was looking at a pension of €50 or €60 per week once he reached 65, thanks to the “double insolvency” that hit Waterford Crystal in 2009.

Ruling was ‘well worth waiting for’

Now, following the European Court of Justice’s ruling, he might actually get the payments to which he’s been entitled, along with up to 1,700 other ex-Waterford Crystal employees.

“Overjoyed,” he said yesterday. “Well worth waiting for.” He paid tribute to trade union Unite and all who took the case against the Government, and to the members’ legal team and actuaries who crunched the numbers and put together the arguments which were vindicated by the justices in Luxembourg.

“It was hard fought and hard got. I do hope the Government will act sooner rather than later and not waste any more taxpayers’ money.”

Seán was one of hundreds of workers who found themselves out of a job in Jan 2009 when the company went into receivership. He was one of the last few left in the Kilbarry factory and visitor centre before the doors were locked for the last time, laying waste to a building once a bustling hub of industry while also one of the country’s most popular visitor attractions.

Seán said he and his family were “in an awful situation”, in common with all his ex-colleagues, when the pension scheme was left insolvent along with the company itself. “We’re after going through an awful time. Everybody, not just me alone.”

He compares that predicament to some of the country’s top bankers, whose “packages” must be protected at all costs.

“We didn’t even get redundancy and had to fight hard to get social welfare.”

Former glasscutter Tom Hogan, who put in 43 years at Waterford Crystal before taking one of the last redundancy packages on offer in Jul 2008, thought he’d be coming out with €400 a week on hitting the age of 63, along with a lump sum.

Instead, with the factory closed six months later and “the pension gone wallop”, he found himself getting €100 a week which would have been his pension for the rest of his life but for yesterday’s judgment. Now he’s hoping the Government will abide by the ruling. “I don’t know how much faith I have in them to respond, they let it go this far when they could have intervened — particularly the Labour Party.

“The European Court of Justice has effectively said the workers at Waterford Crystal have been abused for the last four years. The State have obligations that the Government is in serious breach of. They should do the honourable thing and step in now and fund that scheme.”

WATERFORD CRYSTAL RULING - Q&A

Q What exactly happened yesterday?

A The European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled in favour of Waterford Crystal workers in their case relating to the loss of their pensions when the company went bust.

Q What does it mean for the Waterford Crystal workers?

A In the words of Unite, the trade union representing the 1,700 workers involved, it means vindication, and their money.

Q What happened with the pension pot in the first place?

A In 2009 both Waterford Crystal and its pension fund became insolvent, with workers being told at the time that they would receive only between 18% and 28% of their full pension entitlements.

Q What was the crux of the case brought to the ECJ by the workers?

A That workers were owed more than 49% of their pension entitlements, as per the so-called Robins ruling of 2007. In that case Carol Robins, a woman in England involved in a similar double insolvency, had fought for her pension payments and a Luxembourg court ruled she should receive more than 49% of her entitlements.

Q So is that figure likely to be the one used in relation to the Waterford Crystal workers?

A Not necessarily. It could be argued that the workers should have 100% protection — which would mean a bill for the State of the order of €280m or more. A 90% protection rate, as is the case in Britain, would cost €258m.

Q What happens now?

A Once the ruling is received by Mr Justice Brian McGovern, a date could be set for the High Court. Yesterday the Government said it was reviewing the ruling. Last year the then secretary general of the Department of Finance, Kevin Cardiff, told the Commercial Court that the economic crisis and the terms of the EU/IMF bailout meant the Government could not commit to pay the estimated €13bn actuarial cost of providing a State guarantee of the full pension entitlements of workers in cases of employer insolvency.

An alternative would be for the government to speak with Unite regarding a scheduling of payments, which the trade union would prefer.

Q Is the State on the hook for other pension payments?

A Not as much as you might think. The actuary who helped Waterford Crystal with the case, John O’Connell of Trident Consulting, said despite the turmoil of recent years there are still relatively few companies where both the firm and the defined benefit pension fund have both become insolvent. Any repercussions of the ECJ ruling will not be known until after any future High Court hearing.

Q What does the ruling mean for Ireland?

A Possibly new legislation, although whether or not that is likely was unclear yesterday.

The European ruling is critical of Ireland, claiming that “Ireland has not fulfilled its obligations under an EU directive designed to protect the pensions of workers in the event of the insolvency of their employer”.

— Noel Baker

Picture: Former Waterford Crystal workers celebrate the court ruling on their pension at the old factory site, front from left: Pat Roche (38 years of service), Billy Kelly (30 years), Johnny Burns (44 years) and Liam Farrell (39 years); back: Alfie Ryan (45 years), Michael Dooley (42 years), Denis Hayes (44 years), Richard Connery (40 years), Catriona Duggan (19 years), and Tom Hogan (43 years). Photo: Mary Browne

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