Shameful silence over broken pension promises
Opinion: when an Irish company reneges on the promise of certain retirement income, there is no outrage, no reaction, only silence
Household names such as Permanent TSB Bank, Independent News & Media and Aviva have this year decided to opt out of agreed pension arrangements, leaving thousands of workers out of pocket. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
Imagine your employers decided to withhold your salary – not because they were insolvent and going out of business, but simply because it seemed burdensome. Or the Government chose to meet its austerity targets by forgoing your welfare payment.
Images of street protests, angry confrontations, clamours for immediate political action jump quickly to the mind.
But of course, it couldn’t happen. There is a body of contract law and extensive State apparatus to ensure legal protection for workers on pay.
Yet when an Irish company decides to renege on the promise of certain retirement income, there is no outrage, no reaction . . . only silence. It is unfortunately becoming increasingly clear to the 200,000 or so members of private-sector, defined-benefit pension schemes in Ireland that there is, in fact, no real legal protection for their pension benefits.
Pension contributions are deferred wages over a working life made in the expectation of receiving an income that will see a person somewhat secure in old age. They form an important element of the remuneration of most of the affected individuals in about 900 such schemes around the State.
But there is nothing to stop a solvent employer opting to wind up a scheme. And, as the trustees and scheme sponsors of more than three-quarters of those pension funds scrambled to meet a June 30th deadline for producing a recovery plan on how they would address scheme deficits, that is what a growing number have opted to do.
The Pensions Board, the regulator, estimated that last year about seven schemes a month were being wound up – closing down and cutting benefits to members because of a shortfall of funds. That’s more than 80 a year, and that figure is expected to rise substantially this year.
Household names such as Permanent TSB Bank, Independent News & Media and Aviva have this year decided to opt out of such arrangements, leaving thousands of workers out of pocket. Staff in Clerys and Arnotts, among others, have also faced the same position. Many more are considering their options.
Still in business
Pensions consultant Brian Mulcair, of Towers Watson, told a recent gathering of human resources managers he was “always surprised that pension scheme members are not steaming, and going to their TDs” over the wind-up of pension schemes by companies that remain in business. He’s right.
In the UK, where pensions arrangements closely mirror ours, the government moved some years ago to ensure that employers could not simply wash their hands of pension obligations. A deficit in a wound-up defined-benefit occupational pension scheme become a debt on the company itself. Not here though.
Employers’ group Ibec, which is not known for increasing the cost of business, acknowledged at same meeting of HR professionals that it was one of a number of reforms in the area of pensions that might well be positive – but only in the long term, on cost grounds. In Government though, not a single voice has been raised to protest the idea that employers can – as has happened – take almost 50 per cent of a person’s promised retirement income, or even more, with impunity.
Fianna Fáil’s social protection spokesman Willie O’Dea did make provision in his recent pensions Bill but when his party was in power and able to implement such legislation, it was equally silent.
If the pensions of those making the law and those overseeing regulation of the sector were equally likely to be short- changed, there might be a greater appreciation of the spectre of poverty looming for many when they leave the workforce. As it is, those pensions are immune to the funding standard chasing so many employers from such pension provision, and will continue to be funded by the taxpayer.
This morning four Cabinet ministers assemble in Waterford to launch the new JobPlus scheme under which the State will meet part of employers’ costs in creating a new job for someone who has been out of work for a year or more.
Perhaps Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore, Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation Richard Bruton and Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton might consider if space can be found alongside the 333 measures in the Government’s Action Plan for Jobs for responsible pension reform.