Adjournment Debate. - Job Losses.

(Wexford): I wish to share my time with Deputy Howlin, Deputy D'Arcy and the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne. I welcome the opportunity to raise the issue of the closure of Wexford Electronix. This is the fourth occasion in the last year that I have spoken on the Adjournment in relation to job losses in County Wexford. Including Wexal, Wienas, Emlam Weavers and now Wexford Electronix, the total loss is over 1,000 jobs, which has severely affected families right across the county. The closure of Wexford Electronix presents significant problems for Wexford town, in which it has been one of the largest employers. It will cause severe hardship to many families in that town. In many cases, husbands and wives or partners worked in the company and the loss of both jobs will cause major problems in terms of mortgage repayments and very poor prospects of getting alternative employment in future.

We wish to make a particular case in relation to redundancy payments. The current payments are derisory, at a half week for each year of service up to age 41 and a full week after that age. For example, an employee with 16 years service would get about €2,500 under the current statutory redundancy payments system, which has not been changed since 1967. That is an insult to any worker losing his or her job. The Taoiseach was asked today about legislation which could be rushed through this House in a very short time, but his answer was "No". I appeal to the Taoiseach, who is my party leader, to have a change of mind and heart, to look at this situation very seriously over the next week and to consider the introduction of a Bill to increase statutory redundancy payments to at least three weeks for every year of employment. That change is necessary and the Taoiseach should lead it.

I ask him to think again, to review the situation and to have compassion for the families who are losing their jobs in County Wexford. We have been hit very severely over the last year and we cannot take any more. If we cannot offer people jobs, we, at least, should be in a position to offer adequate redundancy payments to those who are losing their jobs. The current payments, dating from 1967, are a total insult and it is time the legislation was changed.

I thank the Chair for selecting this item for the Adjournment debate tonight. It underlines the importance of this matter for County Wexford that four Wexford Deputies are to contribute to this short debate. Until about 18 months ago, Wexford Electronix was the largest employer in the county, with over 550 employees. The figure last Christmas was 364. All those workers now face redundancy and, because the company is in receivership, they can only look to statutory redundancy payments.

On the Order of Business today, as Deputy Browne said, the leader of the Labour Party, Deputy Quinn, asked the Taoiseach to accept a Labour Party proposal. We have a draft Bill before the House to increase statutory redundancy payments from the miserable half week per year served up to age 41 and one week per year served over age 41 to something more realistic – not overly generous, simply three weeks per year served. That would give some degree of cushioning to those who are now facing unemployment, retraining and the search for a new job. The 364 employees of Wexford Electronix face dire prospects. Wexford has already lost 1,000 jobs in the last 18 months. Deputy Browne instanced the case of people who have worked for the last 16 years in this company. Those under 41, the majority of workers, will qualify for maximum redundancy payments of €2,500. That is a derisory sum for those faced with mortgage payments and normal expenses.

Those people did without their bonuses and the last two pay rounds in an effort to keep their company afloat. They are now being insulted in terms of the amount of money available. Justice demands the redress of this old law dating back to 1967. I ask the Government, and particularly the Taoiseach, to amend the 1967 Act. A single one line amendment, by all party agreement, could take place before the end of this Dáil to ensure justice for these people. The money is available; the social insurance fund is in surplus to the tune of €1.2 billion. It will not have any impact on taxation or Exchequer spend. It simply involves justice for people who have worked hard in their jobs.

I join the other speakers in expressing our appreciation for the opportunity to raise this important issue. We would prefer if this issue had not arisen but we have no option but to address it. The decision to close Wexford Electronix, making 364 employees redundant, is a most disastrous situation for the employees and their families. Their income will be severely reduced; they will have to go on the dole. In some cases, their houses will be put at risk in the absence of mortgage protection. The education of families will also be at risk, especially in relation to third level education which is so important nowadays. Family living standards will be drastically reduced, creating untold hardship in many families. The current redundancy legislation which only allows a half week per year of service is an absolute disaster.

Having suffered the loss of their jobs, the least employees could expect is a decent redundancy payment, having contributed, over many years, through PAYE income tax and PRSI. As Deputy Howlin said, ample funds are available. Already this year, the Minister for Finance has dipped his hand into the fund to the extent of €650 million. The employees who are being made redundant in Wexford should be allowed a reasonable redundancy payment. The Taoiseach's attitude on this matter this morning was most disappointing. He never even gave it a thought. His Fianna Fáil party colleague, Deputy Browne, has already pointed out that, in the Wexford constituency, we have lost over 1,000 jobs in the last 12 months. All those employees have suffered the same fate. That is a scandalous situation. I fully support the Labour Party proposal to amend the 1967 Act to provide for a payment of at least three weeks for every year of service. That is not asking for much.

I point out to Deputy Browne and the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, that it is not enough to preach here in this House. As members of the Fianna Fáil party, it is their job to confront the Taoiseach and the relevant Ministers to ensure that the legislation is amended. I will stay here in the House next week until 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. and I am sure Deputy Howlin will do likewise in order to do so. All that is required is a small amendment and I appeal for this adjustment to be made.

I was appointed to the post of Minister of State almost five years ago and this is the first time I have spoken on an Adjournment debate.

The Minister of State might be looking for his own redundancy shortly.

This is an indication of how strongly I feel on this issue. When 364 jobs are lost in any town it is a sad blow, and I join with my colleagues in asking that people in Wexford Electronix be treated with some respect at this stage.

As Deputy Howlin said, there were 500 people working in the company not too long ago. When the bad news came at Christmas I called 11 meetings to which I invited the local representatives. I am pleased to say that my colleagues here attended all meetings with the unions, and the receiver was quite encouraging and obliging at all times. The receiver, at our request, probably gave the best possible opportunity to a prospective buyer to come in and have a look at the business working on the ground. The receiver claimed that the workers were the most committed and the easiest to deal with in his time as a receiver.

While some 1,000 jobs have been lost in the county as a whole, PFPC has provided 300 jobs in Wexford and Lake Region and Fingal Fish have provided 150 and 105 respectively. Clearstream has opened in Enniscorthy and the advance factory building boom is still going ahead in New Ross and tourism jobs are being provided. However, that is little consolation to those in Wexford Electronix. The excuse was trotted out to us by industries who went to other areas to locate that we did not have a third level insti tution. We have one now but it will not be up and running for a while. This, again, is little consolation to those people who have lost their jobs.

I appeal to the Tánaiste to take a personal interest in the workers of Wexford Electronix, whom she met at my request some time ago, with a view to a decent redundancy package. I understand that the Government is talking with the social partners on this and I ask tonight for expedition. Redundancy should not be the end of it, we need a replacement industry for the people of Wexford Electronix.

As a result of the appointment of a receiver on 13 December 2001, Wexford Electronix was advertised for sale in January of this year. The final outcome of this process, which is nearing conclusion, will determine the future of the company. In agreement with key customers, the plant is to remain open until the end of March 2002. The Tánaiste visited the plant, accompanied by the chief executive and regional manager of Enterprise Ireland, on 22 January last, to assess the situation on the ground and to meet the management and staff of the company, as well as trade union representatives and local representatives. Enterprise Ireland has remained in close contact with the company and the receiver to facilitate any potential takeover or restructuring of the company.

In relation to redundancy payments to workers, to date 14 claims for payment of statutory redundancy lump sums out of the social insurance fund have been received. These payments will be made as soon as documentation regarding the receivership of the company is received. A further 350 claims for payment out of the social insurance fund are expected in the Department shortly. Again priority will be given to the payment of these claims when they are received in our Department. With regard to the insolvency payments scheme, under which amounts of outstanding wages, holiday pay etc. may be claimed from the social insurance fund, I understand there will be over 360 employees involved in total. To date, claim forms in respect of 15 employees were received on 20 February this year. The originals had to be returned to the receiver, on query, due to incomplete information. The staff of the insolvency payments section have been in phone contact with staff from the receiver's office, who are working on site in Wexford, in relation to the completion of the forms.

In regard to minimum notice compensation, also payable under the insolvency payments scheme, appeals by employees will have to be made before the Employment Appeals Tribunal and amounts determined by the tribunal. Whenever these determinations are issued and claim forms received via the receiver, the insolvency payments section of the Department will process the claims as quickly as possible. On the overall issue of the statutory redundancy payments scheme, the Redundancy Payments Acts, 1967-2001, oblige employers to pay redundant employees what is known as a statutory redundancy entitlement. The amount is related to the employee's length of service and his or her normal weekly earnings, based on their gross weekly wage, average regular overtime and payment-in-kind, all added together, subject to a ceiling of €507.90 per week. The ceiling was increased from €380.92 to €507.90 per week with effect from 1 April 2001, following consultations with the social partners. The scheme covers any employee, who is between 16 and 66 years of age with 104 weeks – two years – continuous service and who is insurable for all benefits under the Social Welfare Acts and is normally expected to work for 18 hours or more per week. Part-time workers, with less than 18 hours per week, do not have to be fully insurable but must satisfy the rest of the conditions. Employers who pay their workers their redundancy entitlement and give them proper notice of being made redundant, at least two weeks, are entitled to a 60% rebate from the social insurance fund, into which they make regular payments themselves through PRSI contributions.

Calculation of a redundancy lump sum payment is based upon the following: a half week's pay for each year of employment, between the ages of 16 and 41 years; a week's pay for each year of employment over the age of 41 years; and, in addition, a bonus week. All calculations are subject to the ceiling that I mentioned earlier, which at present stands at €507.90 per week.

Our Department has been reviewing how, among other things, the operation of the statutory redundancy scheme could be made simpler and more efficient. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions and SIPTU have developed proposals to enhance the levels of payments made under the scheme. The ICTU-SIPTU proposals include the following: the qualifying period should be reduced from the current two years continuous service to one year; lump sum payments should be increased to three weeks for every year of service irrespective of age; one additional week to be increased to two weeks; and the weekly pay ceiling to be increased to £500, €634.87, and automatically indexed thereafter. The Tánaiste met ICTU on 6 March last, where its proposals were outlined to her. The Tánaiste is currently consulting with the other social partners involved to seek their observations with a view to obtaining agreement by all sides on how the current statutory redundancy scheme should be evaluated in the wider context of social partnership. I assure this House that every effort will be made to make the necessary payments to the workers of Wexford Electronix as quickly as possible.

I also want to assure the excellent Deputies, all four of them, who have spoken here on behalf of the people of Wexford and the workers of Wexford Electronix that I take very seriously the requests they have made and the continuous efforts they have made to save the company and support industry and development in their county. The full resources of the Department and its State agencies will be given and they will do their utmost to ensure that a replacement industry is found for this location as rapidly as possible.