Adjournment Debate. - Threatened Closure of Wexford Cutlery Factory.

Wednesday, 11 June 1986

Dáil Eireann Debate
Vol. 367 No. 9

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An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Thomas J. Fitzpatrick  Zoom on Thomas J. Fitzpatrick  Deputy Browne has been given permission to raise on the Adjournment the subject matter of the threatened closure of Wexford Cutlery Limited, Enniscorthy. He has 20 minutes.

Mr. Browne: Information on John Browne  Zoom on John Browne  I wish to thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to raise this issue on the Adjournment. I should like to divide my time with Deputy Yates. Wexford Cutlery Limited have been part and parcel of Enniscorthy town for many years. They are now in serious difficulties, with a threatened loss of approximately 20 jobs. The news of the company's troubles has brought an air of despondency and gloom to the people of Enniscorthy town. Over the past few years unemployment has ravaged this town and there are at present 2,000 people unemployed in the area. Many of these are [2007] young people who never had the opportunity to work. In percentage terms, we are away above the national average. This is an unemployment black spot and repeated calls from Deputy Yates and myself to the IDA and other Government agencies for priority action to solve the problems of the area have been more or less ignored.

Wexford Cutlery Limited have at present 40 people employed, but tomorrow evening 20 of those will be let go in what has been described as a temporary lay-off. Unfortunately, temporary lay-offs usually become permanent these days. This decision stems from lack of orders. The 20 people being let go are mainly in the cutlery area of the business. It is appalling that the only company in Ireland manufacturing stainless cutlery cannot be viable and successful. Something has gone seriously astray in the market. There are a number of reasons for the problems now facing this company. A major export order to a leading UK company was recently cancelled, despite every effort by management to get the decision reversed.

The Irish markets have been flooded with cheap imports from Taiwan, Korea, Japan and in recent times China, without tariffs or embargoes of any kind being imposed. It is impossible for Irish products to compete pricewise. The company management point out that a piece of cutlery such as a spoon can be landed here from those countries for the same price as Wexford Cutlery Limited would have to pay for the raw material to produce such an item. The Minister and the Government must seriously consider making it extremely difficult for such cheap imports to get into this country.

A survey carried out two years ago showed that if cheap imports of cutlery were banned from Ireland a total of 800 people could be employed in the industry in Enniscorthy town or in related industries throughout the country. The Minister should at least make it much more difficult for such importations to take place in order to protect Irish jobs. He has a vital role to play in ensuring that all [2008] Government agencies purchasing cutlery do so from Wexford Cutlery Limited. At present Aer Lingus, the Department of Defence and CIE occasionally, purchase from this company and that business is appreciated, but other Government Departments do not even make an inquiry. One must question why.

Hospitals, hostels and areas connected with health boards are in the market and large amounts of cutlery are purchased from time to time. The same applies to prisons, State owned colleges and other Government institutions. These orders never go to Wexford Cutlery Limited. It is obvious that these purchases must consist of cheap imported material.

There is also CERT, a body involved in areas relating to catering and one must ask where they are getting their cutlery supplies at present. I ask the Minister tonight to give a commitment to contact those agencies, encourage and, if possible, direct them to purchase from the Wexford firm and help to save the jobs of Irish people. There is nothing illegal about coming down in favour of Irish workers and the protection of their jobs.

Another area relates to the multinationals and even the Irish owned supermarkets and retail outlets. I know that Deputy Yates has a particular concern about below cost selling and so forth. These people do not seem to want to know about Irish products and certainly do not want to know about Wexford cutlery, a supreme quality product. Dunnes Stores, Tesco, H. Williams and Quinnsworth do not carry the product. They give no choice to the housewife. They sell the product which will make most profit for them. Supermarkets are in business for profiteering, and, in some cases, racketeering. We must call on the supermarkets to give the Irish housewife at least the opportunity to buy a good Irish cutlery set and not just the cheap import.

Waterford Glass Limited and Galway Crystal have engaged Wexford Cutlery Limited to produce particular products for them which have been very successful. In that section there are 15 people employed and I am happy to say those [2009] jobs appear to be reasonably well protected. Wexford Cutlery Limited appreciate the work done by these two very reputable firms. If their product is good enough for Waterford Glass Limited and for Galway Crystal, it is surely good enough to be on the shelves of the supermarkets and to be purchased by Government agencies.

I call on the Minister to use his good offices to ensure the survival of this company. Enniscorthy cannot afford to lose these jobs. We are on our knees now as far as unemployment is concerned. I am not being political tonight and have divided my time with Deputy Yates. We are concerned about Enniscorthy and about unemployment in that town. In housing estates there are young people who have never had an opportunity to work. It is criminal that the only Irish stainless steel company cannot be viable and profitable, with protection for jobs. I ask the Minister to take an interest and ensure that this company, which carries on a traditional industry, can still employ people.

Mr. Yates: Information on Ivan Yates  Zoom on Ivan Yates  I should like to thank Deputy Browne for allowing me some of his time in this limited debate, and the Ceann Comhairle for being good enough to allow the matter to be taken on the Adjournment. Unfortunately, this is the second occasion in the lifetime of this Dáil that this enterprise has had difficulties. Previously it was Viners Cutlery which went into receivership. One of the important things about Wexford Cutlery Limited is that is has been taken over by local enterpreneurs who are not fly-by-nights and who are very committed to the future of this business.

Deputy Browne referred to the quality of the product. I can speak from personal experience. Having been married recently——

Mr. Browne: Information on John Browne  Zoom on John Browne  Congratulations.

Mr. Yates: Information on Ivan Yates  Zoom on Ivan Yates  ——I received a large quantity of Wexford cutlery and can speak very highly of its quality. The situation is extremely serious, as Deputy Browne has [2010] said. I hope that these lay-offs are only temporary. I understand that the firm have been stockpiling for some time. When they recently reviewed the financial position they realised that because of the limited sales they could not carry on indefinitely. This resulted in these lay-offs. The Minister should ensure, firstly, that the State agencies, the Irish Goods Council and Córas Tráchtála, through their exports — they have substantial exports to the UK — are assisted in every way possible in relation to their marketing dilemma. As Deputy Browne so rightly pointed out, there is also the question of State purchases.

I would like the Minister to look at the question of cutlery for the Army. This is handled by the Department of Defence. Each year in April or May a tender is advertised for a major contract which involves a couple of months work for this firm. The tenders are placed around June and the work and the delivery take place in July. We are already into the middle of June and the tender has still not been advertised. I am glad that the Department of Defence picked Wexford cutlery because of its high quality and its strategic position in this sector. I ask the Minister to take up this Army contract with the Department of Defence to ensure that it is brought forward and advertised immediately and that Wexford Cutlery Limited is given priority for it.

I would like to pay tribute to Mr. Tom Williams and other shareholders in the firm. They invested much money in it but have not made any. They are continuously putting money into the company. I also wish to pay tribute to the workforce. There is a very good industrial relations record here. They are workers of a particularly high skill and deserve every support. I would ask the Minister to see what scope there is within Foir Teoranta to give the necessary resources by way of equity capital to this company if they are rearranging their finances. I would also ask, as I understand that the Industrial Credit Corporation is a creditor, that there would be no panic reaction, that the current review which is taking place [2011] and the trading operations would be sympathetically looked at and that there would be a positive and constructive outlook towards the future.

I support Deputy Browne when he said that health boards, hospitals, Aer Lingus and any other State firms should be assisted with their purchases of cutlery. I wish to underline the point he made about the overall context of unemployment in Enniscorthy because of this. Recently The Echo, a famous local newspaper, went into receivership. It is indicative of the problems of Enniscorthy that we are talking about a lay-off of 20 people. In Castlebar and Cork people talk about lay-offs of 200 or 300? We are in such a desperate position in regard to employment that a shedding of jobs at this level is very severe indeed. Last week Deputy Browne, myself and other Oireachtas Members met Mr. Pádraig White. We asked, because of the needs of Wexford and in particular Enniscorthy, that the embargo on advance factories would be lifted. It was agreed by the IDA that if there was one area in the county where it could be lifted it would be Enniscorthy. There are 18.8 acres of land there for a 20,000 sqare feet advance factory. The IDA were very sympathetic. If the policy is not to build any more advance factories and just place projects in the existing advance factory space, then because there is no advance factory in Enniscorthy that means industry will go elsewhwere. We have the lowest industrial base and therefore our needs are greater. I specifically ask, as well as the question of designation which I do not have time to go into at present, that this measure for Enniscorthy would be looked upon very sympathetically.

We are not trying to make an alarmist situation out of the position in Wexford Cutlery Limited. I believe that it has a positive future. I understand that other cutlery businesses, through contacts in Sheffield and in England generally, are experiencing the same decline. It is not any problem or fault of Wexford Cutlery Limited. It is an overall decline. Perhaps stainless steel cutlery is somewhat of a [2012] luxury, given the recessionary position in relation to disposable incomes. Therefore, because this company is doing nothing wrong there is no reason why they should not get full State support. If there is a complacent attitude and if it is left to the vagaries of the market, then I fear, as Deputy Browne does, that the temporary position may turn into a semi-permanent or permanent one.

I ask that Córas Tráchtála, who recently clinched a deal with a major retail outlet in the UK for the export of this very fine cutlery, which is simply not moving off the shelves, would get assistance towards further contracts in that area. The Irish Goods Council should try to identify dumped imports from non-EC countries. We are not talking about a free trading environment within the EC. We are talking about dumped cheap labour imports from non-EC third countries. France or some other country would have technical trade barriers or some way of hindering imports. The Irish Goods Council should be asked to promote this fine Irish production. The necessary financial State agencies, Fóir Teoranta and ICC, should take a positive outlook in this regard. The overall needs of Enniscorthy vis-à-vis the IDA should also be taken into account because of this very bad and depressing news for this town.

Minister of State at the Department of Industry and Commerce (Mr. E. Collins): Information on Edward Collins  Zoom on Edward Collins  Like Deputy Browne and Deputy Yates, I fully appreciate the importance of Wexford Cutlery Limited in the industrial scene in Enniscorthy and in County Wexford. I was concerned about the recent news. Regretfully, I do not have much information to offer the House concerning the cause of the company's current difficulties or precisely what steps its management propose to take in the immediate future. The company's workforce have been put under protective notice. This came as a surprise not only to me but also to the State agencies, including the Industrial Development Authority who, as I understand it, were not given any preliminary warning in the [2013] matter. I am not in any way implying that the decision to put the workforce under protective notice is a precipitate decision; nor is it necessarily a bad omen for the company. It may be a procedural decision taken by the promoters on good advice. However, it is not for me to say. Given the local background of the promoters, I am sure that they are fully satisfied with this course of action and that they are acting in a very responsible manner. However, to my knowledge the relevant State agencies have not yet been approached. Certainly, the IDA have not been approached, nor were they approached at an earlier point in time, to see if there are solutions to the problems.

On a number of occasions in this House I have asked industry to be forthcoming in coming forward to State agencies in order to identify the problems being faced by them. Sometimes it is not possible, even with State agencies assistance, to get solutions to a company's problem. I appeal again that the relevant State agencies be approached. In relation to the case before the House tonight I will get in touch with the State agencies and their responsible Ministers with a view to seeing what can be done to ensure the continuation of this company. The company manufacture cutlery products and they have had a difficult history over the past ten years. Their future seemed to have been assured back in 1975 when they were acquired by Viners of Sheffield. Unfortunately, that venture did not work out, due to trading difficulties in the UK. Indeed, a receiver was appointed to the parent company. This led to a takeover of the assets by a consortium of local interests headed by a local businessman and included some of the former management and the extablishment of Wexford Cutlery Limited in 1982.

In the period since then this local group have made strenuous efforts to secure the company's future through, inter alia, diversification into new product areas. With assistance from CTT, they have been endeavouring to develop new markets both at home, where Waterford Glass were mentioned, and in the UK. [2014] where, unfortunately, in 1985 they lost a substantial export business when a particular customer whom they were supplying experienced unforseen difficulties. Deputy Yates raised the question of the Department of Defence tender. This tender will be put out in the near future.

With regard to the problem of competition from inports, there is no doubt that the level of imports from the People's Republic of China have grown substantially in recent years. This was from a very modest base in 1983 and is more than offset by compensating decreases in imports from South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan. Nevertheless, the action open to Ireland to restrict imports is fairly limited, particularly having regard to Ireland's responsibilities not only as a member of the European Communities but also as a member of GATT. If it can be demonstrated what imports from these sources represent the nub of Wexford Cutlery's difficulties I will arrange to have the matter examined within by Department to see if a sustainable case for some form of quantitative restriction on imports from some of these sources can be made and pursued by my Department. It will be open to the firm to approach the EC Commission if they are concerned about low cost imports or dumping from outside the Community. That is something which will have to be pursued in a formal manner. However, before I depart from this point I would like to mention that a cursory examination of the import statistics would seem seen to suggest that the bulk of our imports in the cutlery area come from the UK and, to a lesser extent, from other member states of the European Communities. Of course, we are severely restricted in what steps we can take to curtail these. If we have open markets, we have to offer an open market to our partners.

With regard to the question of job creation in County Wexford, the Government, through the State agencies, have been addressing this question. I am pleased to draw the House's attention to the announcements which were made recently by my Department concerning [2015] the establishment of three new manufacturing projects which will result in the creation of 250 new jobs in County Wexford over the next two years and which will lead to substantial extra job opportunities in later years. One of these plants is Wenaas, which have been set up in the former Bergman factory in Enniscorthy. The Wenaas project is the second major success of the IDA in 1986 for County Wexford. Earlier this year, Snap Tite, a US company, finalised plans to establish a plant on the Wexford Industrial Estate which is projected to employ 100 people in 1988 in the production of hydraulic hose couplings.

In the small industries sector, the local IDA small industry board approved 18 reports for County Wexford during 1985 with a job potential of 124. At year end, 14 of these projects were up and running and 45 people were already employed. For 1986, the IDA have 21 small industry projects of which nine, with a job potential of 109, have been approved. The indications are that the target of 21 projects will be achieved. I will bear the points made by the Deputies in mind. I [2016] am not quite sure of the role which the Irish Goods Council can play in monitoring imports. I am aware that they have a statutory function in which they have been very successful. This is a very complex area. We are members of the EC and of GATT and these put a constraint on us. We must bear in mind that we depend on other countries opening their markets to us in order to allow our goods and services to have the possibility of exporting to them.

In conclusion and adverting back to Wexford Cutlery Limited and the fact that the serious problems of the company have now only come to my attention, in effect, we will be arranging through my Department for the relevant State agencies to examine the situation at the company as a matter of urgency to see what can be done to ensure the continued operation of the company and the protection of the employment which they provide.

The Dáil adjourned at 11.30 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 12 June 1986.

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