Thursday, 15 December 2011
Dáil Éireann Debate
Acting Chairman (Deputy Joe Costello): I am afraid that is not allowed. Deputy Higgins cannot share time with a Deputy whose name has not been called by the Ceann Comhairle and so he must take the allotted time. Time can only be granted to a Deputy who is named.
I am glad the Minister for Finance is in the Chamber. What we would like to have with him today is a quiet measured conversation about the issue I raise which concerns 370 workers at EBS Limited, now merged with Allied Irish Banks. These are very low-paid and middle-income workers. They are coal-face workers, not the erstwhile high fliers who expanded the property bubble and destroyed the economy in the process.
For 45 years workers in the company were paid their annual wages in 13 equal instalments. Therefore, after nine years of service, a worker on a gross income of €30,000 would receive 13 instalments of €2,308, before tax deduction. The 13th instalment was paid in December, before Christmas. For decades this was accepted by everybody to be part of the basic wage and not as a Christmas bonus. It was consolidated into the wage de facto.
On 6 December, possibly as the Minister was on his feet in this Chamber announcing the budget, the workers were informed that their 13th instalment was not going to be paid. They had expected this payment the very next day in a pay packet. Obviously, they had planned for Christmas and had already spent the money on their families’ Christmas preparations, etc. They were totally reliant on the payment, given they are very low-paid or middle-paid workers. This is a devastating blow.
A loan facility at 12.5% interest offered to the workers by the management of EBS as an alleged compensation adds insult to the injury. It is because of this great outrage and the injustice the workers feel that they have called a strike on December 20. If it goes ahead, another day’s pay will be lost by those workers.
Perhaps the Minister can enlighten us but I understand the Department of Finance made that decision by virtue of powers invested either in the Department or in the Minister himself, in conjunction with AIB. In addition, senior managers on €90,000 a year who had the same arrangement are not having their 13th instalment withdrawn — not that the measure would be justified if they were.
On behalf of those workers I ask the Minister to go into immediate conclave with officials and management of AIB and EBS to ensure this decision is reversed. As it is Christmas time, he could cast himself in the role of Santa Claus rather than Scrooge.
Minister for Finance (Deputy Michael Noonan): I have the utmost sympathy for EBS staff regarding the timing of the announcement of the decision that this so-called 13th month payment would not be made. This does not reflect well on management and should not have happened. However, this payment is described in the contracts of the relevant staff members as the payment of a Christmas bonus. The terms of the latest capital investment in AIB and its accompanying letters made clear in July 2011 that no bonuses whatsoever could be paid or awarded.
Since 1 July 2011, EBS is a wholly owned subsidiary of AIB and covered by the above conditions. When approached in November and again in December, my Department made it clear to AIB management this was our understanding of the relevant provisions of the agreement underpinning the State’s capital investment in the bank.
Much has been made of the fact that these payments have been paid for several years previously, especially from 2008 onwards. For clarification, when the State invested moneys in EBS in May 2010 by means of a subscription for a special investment share, remuneration restrictions only applied to senior management. As a result of this investment and the recommendations of the covered institutions remuneration oversight committee, no bonuses have been paid to this cadre of staff since 2008.
As conditions deteriorated and further capital was injected into AIB in December 2010, these restrictions were broadened to formally prohibit the payment of bonuses to all staff and became the template that would apply to all the institutions as further investment was made. Had EBS been maintained as a separate institution following the PCAR, prudential capital assessment review, of March 2011 any further injection of capital would have been covered by the expanded restrictions.
The Government decided, as part of the restructuring of the banking sector, that EBS would merge into AIB and, as a result, the wider restrictions on the payment of bonuses came into effect. Either way the blanket restrictions on the payment of bonuses to all staff would have applied. I have indicated this when replying to parliamentary questions on the matter yesterday and today.
While I have sympathy with the staff on the timing issue, it has to be stressed that the State’s capital investment into the banking has protected jobs across the financial sector. Without this crucial investment, our banks would have encountered severe difficulties and many jobs would have been lost. The State has already invested some €20 billion in AIB and identified it as one of the two universal pillar banks.
Last week saw the introduction of a very difficult budget that meant reductions in State payments to some of those who rely on the State as their only source of income. This was in addition to other reductions in previous budgets including the termination of the Christmas bonus payment to social welfare recipients. We are facing three more difficult budgets as we attempt to extricate ourselves from our present challenging economic and fiscal circumstances. While I readily acknowledge the sacrifices made by employees, both public and private, in this battle for survival of the nation, in this context, it is not unjustified for a bank which the State has rescued not to pay a Christmas bonus.
The proposed strike is to be very much regretted. I fully acknowledge the staff have a right to express their grievance in any legitimate way. However, the union and staff should reflect again taking all of the circumstances into consideration. I understand EBS is putting in place a loan scheme to facilitate employees to assist them in meeting their commitments over this period.
This is not a case of going after the “little people” who have not caused this crisis while more senior employees have departed with generous remuneration and severance arrangements, as has been alleged. This latter aspect is a cause of great annoyance to citizens and shared by the Government. In such circumstances we are greatly constrained by the strong legal advice available that recovery of such awards would not be possible. Hence the introduction of the blanket restrictions on the payment of bonuses and other remuneration items now included in the latest agreements with the banks.
In such circumstances, I do not think it is unreasonable to ask employees of a rescued institution to forgo a Christmas bonus where it is totally dependent on the State for survival while the Government has to ask citizens to accept much greater impositions with the likelihood of more to follow.
Deputy Joe Higgins: That is a deeply regrettable response. For the Minister for Education and Skills sitting next to the Minister to be nodding his head in agreement is also rather ironic. The prohibition of bonuses in the banks is enthusiastically supported when it relates to the high flyers and the fat cats who devastated our economy with their reckless lending and gambling. Their bonuses ranged from €60,000 and €70,000 to €100,000 and €250,000. The bonuses in question here are for workers on €26,000 per annum. The Minister is denying them a gross of €2,000 as the 13th instalment. Clerical staff on €34,000 per annum are being cut a gross bonus of €2,600. These bonuses have also been cut the day before they were due. The Minister will know how families will have already prepared to spend that money for Christmas. This was not a bonus and the arrangement obtained for 45 years.
Deputy Joe Higgins: I am afraid it is going after the little people. A manager on €91,000 would traditionally get two instalments on 12 and 13 December of €7,000. He will still get this 13th instalment while the other workers will not. It compounds the whole injustice of making ordinary people for this crisis. They are not responsible for it but the victims of it. The majority of ordinary, decent, fair-minded people will agree the workers in question should be paid the thirteenth instalment of what is their normal wage. Will the Minister reconsider this decision?
Deputy Michael Noonan: It is a matter for management at EBS and it was told last July the rules pertaining to bonuses. The Department of Finance and I had to respond to very strong advocacy from Deputy Higgins and others who said no bonuses should be paid in the banks as long as taxpayers’ money was bailing them out.
Deputy Michael Noonan: I am glad Deputy Higgins is more moderate in his approach today. However, he has put great pressure on the banking system and the Government not to pay bonuses. Now we are not paying bonuses and he wants to reverse it. Will he tell me what he wants?
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