I am pleased to have an opportunity to discuss this issue again. We are making proper use of Dáil time by airing issues of the day in the House. If, having met FLS this evening, we believe it is necessary to report to the Dáil tomorrow, I will be glad to do so. The Whips should note that I will be attending a debate in the Seanad at 12.30 p.m.
A second opportunity is being afforded to those members of the TEAM workforce who declined to accept the proposed FLS deal a month ago. They are being asked to respond by 1 July 1998.
The TEAM issue has occupied much of my time in recent months; it is an issue that needs to be addressed. I have met the trade unions formally and informally on a number of occasions and the executive chairman and senior management of Aer Lingus. I have also met numerous individual members of the TEAM workforce, particularly in recent weeks, mainly in my clinics. Many members of the workforce took the trouble to come to Athlone to talk to me, not in a belligerent sense but as a way of seeking assurance on various matters, which I was not always able to give them. However, I was pleased to meet them.
I have repeated the same message to the unions that I stated in the House on a number of occasions. Our overriding concern at all times has been to secure the maximum level of employment in TEAM into the future. Any strategic developments on the ownership of TEAM can take place only with the concurrence of the workforce. That is what I said in mid-December. The offer of £54.6 million in consideration of the proposed transfer of ownership to FLS cannot be improved on. My personal understanding of the letters issued in 1990 to each Aer Lingus staff member transferring to TEAM is that they are letters of guarantee of employment in Aer Lingus but, as I said previously in the Dáil, the concept of a job for life is not valid in today's commercial world, where sustainable work must exist if a job is to exist. My personal belief is that TEAM, as a subsidiary of Aer Lingus, does not have a viable future. The best prospects for a secure viable future for TEAM lie with the proposals for the acquisition of the company by FLS Aerospace.
I have stressed to the management that it must redouble its efforts to address the genuine concerns that still exist among the workforce. From listening to the workers individually, I know pensions remain a major issue. Despite assurances that the pension arrangements with FLS would at least mirror those already available in Aer Lingus, and could be improved on, many workers still need further reassurances in this area. Yesterday I asked representatives of Aer Lingus management to explore carefully with FLS whether anything can be done in this area and to bring all necessary legal and pension expertise to bear on this matter. I put it to them that perhaps the workers could retain the Aer Lingus pension scheme when they become members of FLS, but I do not know if that will be the outcome. They are investigating the matter.
TEAM workers also have concerns about the security of employment with FLS. I have already given my view on that matter, but I accept legitimate concerns still exist. I will explore that question further with Stephen Harpoth, chairman of FLS Aerospace, when I meet him later this afternoon to determine the certainty of the job offers. My understanding of the FLS position is that it has suspended the due diligence process in light of the response of the TEAM workforce last month, but that it remains keen to complete the TEAM deal and convinced that TEAM, in FLS ownership, would be a formidable and successful player in the aircraft maintenance business. I would also expect, however, that FLS, which is anxious to expand in that business, would explore other options, but I have no knowledge of any specific options it may be considering.
My attention and energies are focused exclusively on trying to get the right outcome for TEAM in this situation. I am concentrating on the efforts of Aer Lingus management this week and next to address all the questions, doubts and worries of the TEAM workforce as best it can. If, notwithstanding the efforts of all involved in this long and difficult process, the deal falls through, the board of Aer Lingus will have to consider the position very carefully and in a calm manner and then advise me on how it sees the future for TEAM and for the Aer Lingus group as a whole. I asked it to consider that matter and get back to me if necessary, but I hope that will not be necessary. I do not believe it would be helpful for me to speculate on that scenario today. I gave my agreement to the proposal from the chairman of Aer Lingus last autumn that Aer Lingus should seek a buyer for TEAM. He did not think at that time the process would prove so complex and lengthy. Having said that, it is a very major step that is being proposed and we must give it all the time and attention it requires.
I have stated clearly that in my view the best outcome for TEAM and its workforce, and not just for the Aer Lingus group, is the acceptance of the FLS deal. We will continue to work up to the 1 July deadline to seek to bring the workers along on this deal.
On 16 December I stated publicly in the House to the workers and to the management that the future of the jobs rested in the hands of the workers. I have no better words to describe the position today. The jobs with FLS are a certainty. Uncertainty lies ahead if the workers do not accept the offer. They have a clear choice between job certainty in FLS, which has good relations with its employees, which has operated all the European directives and, in a commercial sense, has a fine future, or job uncertainty if they turn down the offer.
As I stated previously, a job is no longer for life. I agree the letters written in 1990 stated that the jobs would be forever. They sounded like a fairytale then, but they sound more like one now. A job must be commercially viable. Semi-State companies can no longer rely on State aids to prop them up. That is not allowed and, even if it were, it should not happen. Transference from a part of a company that is viable and profitable to a part that is not viable or profitable is no longer acceptable. The workers had high hopes in 1990 that aircraft maintenance was a job for the future. They had heady expectations. This did not turn out to be the case because there was a downturn in aircraft maintenance and in the aviation industry generally. They have not got any of the wage increases in the period 1994-98 which everybody else has enjoyed. Giving parity now would sink the ship overnight. It would mean a cost of £17 million while the company is operating on an even keel despite an injection of loans and equity of £100 million since 1990. There is now a chance of decent, certain jobs being provided by a decent firm which will make aircraft maintenance one of its strong core activities.
I met a considerable number of people individually as distinct from the formal union leadership. Employees have taken the trouble to come to Athlone, a distance of 75 miles, each Saturday. I have talked with them and told them I want them to have jobs with a certain future. I have nothing to offer if this deal does not go through.
If necessary I will be glad to return to this issue in the House again tomorrow or next week. The Houses of the Oireachtas should, in general, concern themselves with matters of the day as well as legislation.