Workers occupy Belfast car components factory
5 April 2009
Up to 200 workers are currently occupying the Visteon car components in Belfast. They took this action after being informed that the company had gone into administration and that workers were being made redundant with immediate effect. The occupation in Belfast was followed by similar action at the company’s other plants in Enfield, North London and Basildon, Essex where workers had got the same news. Overall, 565 out of Visteon UK’s total workforce of 610, were sacked.
The sudden manner of these sackings took workers completely by surprise. Davy MacMurray, from the Unite union, described the way the job cuts were announced as "brutal". He said, "The administrator came in, held a meeting and told the workforce their employment was terminated. These people were going to be put out on the street tonight." What is particularly galling to workers is that the company, now in administration, is refusing to honour the redundancy terms that had previously been agreed. Administrators KPMG have only offered the workers paltry statutory redundancy payments. Even workers with over 30 years service will only get about £9,000 and most workers a lot less. They have also lost their pension entitlements. These are now to be controlled by the government Pensions Protection Fund, which only pays out a maximum of £9,000 a year. Many workers face the double blow of being denied adequate redundancy compensation and losing the bulk of their pension. There is also little prospect of them finding new jobs comparable to the ones they lost. Frank McFarland, who has worked for 33 years at the Belafst factory, summed up their plight: “I’m 55, who’s going to employ me? What am I going to do? We’re all industry workers and there is no industry out there. It’s as bad as it could be.”
While workers were taken wholly by surprise by the closure, it is clear that the company has been preparing this move for some time. Visteon had come into existence when it separated from Ford Motor in 2000. Yet despite this formal independence it remained effectively under control of the company. Ford, along with Jaguar and Land Rover (two companies up until recently owned by Ford) accounted for around 80 per cent of its business. At the time of the separation Ford assured workers that would have “lifetime protection” of their pay and conditions if they agreed to move to the new company. In a document given to staff the question “How long are our pay and conditions guaranteed?” was posed. The company answered: “For the duration of your employment with Visteon UK, your terms and conditions . . . will mirror Ford conditions. This means lifetime protection while an employee of Visteon UK of all your contractual conditions of employment.” It is on this commitment that the workers in Belfast and at the other plants are basing their claim for an improved offer.
However, it is doubtful that Ford had any intention of honouring that commitment. Rather they saw the creation of Visteon as a means to dispose of loss making parts of the company. Worldwide, the Michigan-based company employs some 33,500 workers and has an annual turnover of around $9.5 billion. It has gone through a similar process to that which took place at Ford, with parts of the company being separated off and closed. The closure of Visteon's UK arm, which has lost £669 million since 2000, is part of this. The losses at Visteon UK are exaggerated to some degree by the fact that it owes more than £400 million to its US parent Visteon Corp. Even within Visteon UK there has been a separation, with its executives being employed by the recently created 'Visteon Engineering Services'. What has been left is a shell company that while employing the baulk of the workforce is heavily indebted and has very few assets. All this has been a scam designed to move the losses and liabilities of Vistoen as far away from Ford as possible. In the case of the Belfast plant there is evidence that Visteon UK’s management was preparing for its closure as early as January 2007. A report entitled Project Protea discusses the development of “duplicate sources for all the Belfast product lines by the end of 2007”. Managers involved aimed to “minimise information leaks by creating isolated project teams”.
The unions for their part have been taking tough over the redundancies at Visteon. Jimmy Kelly, regional secretary for Unite in Ireland, claimed there was "no time limit" on the sit-in in Belfast. He added, "The Finaghy workers deserve fairer treatment from Visteon and Ford—and a better redundancy package to see them through the tough times ahead." Speaking to sacked workers in Enfield, the national secretary of Unite for the vehicle industry, Dave Osborne, claimed that "the action will spread not just into Visteon plants but into Ford and right across the UK, not just in Dagenham." This is the type of action that would be needed to achieve any sort of just settlement for the Visteon workers. But it is a course of action that the trade unions want to avoid at all costs. They want to keep the action confined to the affected plants and conclude an agreement with Ford that the occupying workers, isolated from the bulk of the workforce, can be pressurised into accepting.
An example of how they operate is the recent occupation of the Waterford glass factory in Kilbarry. In response to an order to close the factory by the administrator workers to took the initiative to occupy. The stated aim was to save their jobs and improve redundancy terms. Their union Unite gave rhetorical support, and the workers were being hailed as heroes and put at the head of demonstrations. But at the same time unions were working with the Irish government and potential buyers to arrange a deal which would see the shut down of the plant with no extra redundancy payments and only a few temporary posts remaining. Trade unions isolated Irish workers from others in the Waterford-Wedgewood business by insisting that the Waterford plant could be kept going apart from the rest of the business. In the end Unite's preferred deal with the US venture capitalist company KPS Capital went ahead on the basis of proposals almost the same as those which provoked the occupation.
The response of politicians to the closure of Visteon has been the usual hand wringing and populist gestures. Since the beginning of the occupation there has been a steady stream of political figures up to the plant to express their support and sympathy for the workers. This has ranged from the SDLP through to the DUP. However, the most visible party around the dispute has been Sinn Fein, and in particular party leader Gerry Adams. One obvious reason for his prominence is the location of the plant in his constituency. More broadly it provides the party with an issue on which to make a few radical gestures. Adams got a round of applause from workers when he accused Ford of behaving in an “underhand” fashion and stated that the company a moral obligation to ensure workers received a fair pay off. He said he had been in contact with New York comptroller Bill Thompson, who has pension funds invested in Ford, about the matter. (Although it seems obvious that a pension fund aiming to maximise its return would fully support the actions of Ford).
Apart from a nod towards Irish America the essential message of Sinn Fein was the same as the other parties and the trade unions – pointing towards an upcoming meeting between representatives of Unite and Ford management as an “opportunity to lobby." All that is being offered to workers is the possibility of a slightly improved offer if they rally behind the efforts of politicians and union leaders. Any strategy that looks to solidarity from other workers is firmly rejected. One of the reasons for this is that both political and trade union leaders adhere to the view that economic growth in the north, that will in turn underpin the peace settlement, is dependent on attracting foreign capital. Therefore, nothing can be done that would deter foreign investment.
They continue to adhere to this even when
their economic strategy has collapsed. In the face of the deepening
recession foreign owned firms in the north are contracting rapidly.
In the same week as 210 people were laid off at Visteon, ninety-five workers
were made redundant at the engineering firm FG Wilson, and 87 jobs went
at Nortel's Newtownabbey plant. The biggest blow of all came with
the news of the loss of almost 1,000 jobs in Belfast at aerospace company
Bombardier. In the period of four days last week the north lost 2%
of its manufacturing industry workforce. The decline
of these companies, some of which represent the top end of the north’s
tiny productive sector, highlight the severe limitations for economic growth
in the north. For workers the loss of jobs shows the futility
of trade unions buying into the Executive’s economic strategy. Being
compliant won’t necessarily attract jobs, and it certainly won’t stop them