February 5, 2009

(BN) Waterford Wedgwood's Collapse Stings Irish City as Workers Cling to Plant

Waterford Crash Stings Irish City as Workers Protest

Feb. 3 (Bloomberg) -- Ian Paul started working at Waterford Crystal at the age of 15. More than four decades later, he's part of a phalanx of workers staging sit-in protests at the factory to save their livelihoods.

Waterford Wedgwood Plc, which owns the crystal business, went into receivership on Jan. 5 and the plant in Waterford, southeast Ireland, shut on Jan. 30. Paul and about 500 colleagues are taking turns to keep vigil, occupying the visitor center.

"It's worse than a death in the family," said Paul, 57, a manager who's waiting to find out if he still has a job. "If it was taken out, you can forget about Waterford."

One in 10 people of working age in the city were employed by Waterford, in Ireland's "Crystal County," in the early 1980s. The company, a symbol of Waterford for more than 60 years, now has succumbed to the financial crisis that's sinking the country's economy and its banks.

Waterford had 3,300 workers in the city of 46,000 at the peak and employed 700 until last week, when the receiver closed the manufacturing plant. That leaves 200 people working mainly in administration and customer service.

"Waterford Crystal is what has defined Waterford for hundreds of years," said Monica Leech, chief executive officer of the city's Chamber of Commerce. "It's an iconic brand that everyone in the world knows."

Crystal City

Companies in the region such as Crystal Filling Station and Crystal Vision supermarket underline the connection to the city's glass heritage. At the Waterford Institute of Technology, the sport center is named after the company.

The visitor center attached to the factory in Waterford draws about 300,000 people. It masks the fact that the company, which made the ball that's dropped in New York's Times Square on New Year's Eve, has lost money for five years.

Last month, receivers were appointed because Waterford Wedgwood couldn't pay its debts. That prompted Chairman Tony O'Reilly, a former head of H.J. Heinz Co., to resign. Scrambling to find a buyer, the receiver, David Carson of Deloitte, said on Jan. 31 that he had "no option" other than to halt production.

That sparked an "altercation" between Waterford workers and security staff on Jan. 30, pictures broadcast by Dublin-based RTE showed. A glass panel in a door in the visitor center was smashed, and now workers are running a six-hour shift system to occupy the building.

'Carson Pie'

In the cafe, where workers are gathered, blackboards advertise food mocking the receiver: "Today's special: Carson Pie. Union advises members to stay clear."

About 15 Waterford workers today entered the lobby of the Deloitte building in Dublin seeking a meeting with representatives of the company.

Ann Croake, 54, who worked in quality control, said a woman at mass that morning had given her 10 euros ($12.85) to buy food for the workers occupying the center.

"This is like breaking up a family," says Seamus Norris, 46, who has worked for 17 years at Waterford as a business analyst, during his six-hour shift occupying the center. "We've all got families. We've all got mortgages."

Irish unemployment rose in December to the highest in more than 15 years. The economy has lost 10 percent of its manufacturing jobs in the past seven years.

"If Irish people don't feel the pain is being felt equally across all sectors, then there's potential for unrest here," said Dermot O'Leary, chief economist at Goodbody Stockbrokers in Dublin. "If companies are going to compete on the world stage, then they need control over their costs."

The company had about 8,000 workers worldwide, according to last year's annual report. Outside of Ireland, it has crystal and china production operations in countries including Germany, Indonesia and Stoke-on-Trent, England.

"We are going to stay here until something is sorted," says Alice Power, 41, who joined Waterford from school. "It's like a family here. If this goes, it will be huge."

To contact the reporter on this story: Louisa Nesbitt in Dublin at lnesbitt@bloomberg.net Ian Guider in Dublin at iguider@bloomberg.net .

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