Fear and loathing at Virgin Media Ireland as strike action looms

Company that is seeking redundancies says wellbeing of staff ‘foremost’ in process

Tony Hanway, Virgin Media Ireland’s chief executive, wrote to staff last month saying growth was down and costs were up and the company needed a ‘transformation programme’. File photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

Tony Hanway, Virgin Media Ireland’s chief executive, wrote to staff last month saying growth was down and costs were up and the company needed a ‘transformation programme’. File photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

 

The email was cloaked in management speak and took a long time to get to the point. When it did, the message was alarming for Virgin Media Ireland staff.

Tony Hanway, the company’s chief executive, wrote to them on October 30th. It was a tale of woe.

Growth was down and costs were up. The company, he declared, needed a “transformation programme”, a phrase emphasised in bold.

“We have identified 65 roles across the business that will potentially no longer be needed,” he wrote.

Everybody was asked to check their email to see if they were “in the proposed impacted population”.

The immediate response from staff was consternation.

“People were checking their email every two seconds or were coming in from annual leave. Some were ringing in their passwords,” said one employee.

Two days later the company sent out its “5 on Jive” weekly email listing five positive things done that week.

“Have a good weekend,” it signed off.

“It was gross disregard for the stress that they had put staff through just two days before,” recalled the employee, who wishes to remain anonymous.

Redundancy announcement

On the evening of Friday, November 1st, Virgin Media Ireland made its redundancy announcement public.

It was a good day to bury bad news about the media and the announcement was quickly eclipsed by news of RTÉ’s financial travails.

While the public has been fixated on RTÉ’s woes, little attention has been paid to what is happening at Virgin Media TV, formerly TV3.

Eight redundancies in total have been made in the last month. The numbers are small, but the impact on the station and the morale of staff working there is likely to be huge.

The company has removed staff with long service, most of them in their 40s and 50s, who have senior roles within the broadcaster and huge experience in putting programmes on air.

Virgin Media Ireland is now embroiled in an industrial relations dispute with Siptu and Unite, which represent the unionised workers in the wider group that provide cabling, mobile, home phone and broadband services.

The two unions represent 350 people, more than a third of the workforce, and members have voted overwhelmingly for strike action. The nature of that action will be decided on Monday when the unions meet to plot the way forward.

At heart is the issue of union recognition. Both Siptu and Unite say the company has not engaged with them in relation to the redundancies. The unions have sought a hearing at the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC).

They also claim that all workers in the wider group are bound by a collective agreement dating back to 2008.

The issue was raised in the Seanad last week by Sinn Féin Senator Paul Gavan. He had heard a “horror story” which he recounted to his fellow Senators.

“One of the employees was told that they were being made redundant. They could sign up to the company’s new offer, half that of the old offer agreed by the union, by 5pm that day or just receive statutory payments,” he said.

‘Appalling’

“It’s an appalling way to treat people where you expect media companies to treat people with respect. I hear that the staff, apart from being really angry, are resolute in resisting this imposition of redundancies.”

The redundancy deal being offered is considerably less than the same deal that was on the table in 2015. Staff were then offered a severance package of five weeks basic pay per year of service (capped at a maximum of two years salary) plus statutory redundancy (two weeks per year of service).

The current deal is capped at a year’s salary inclusive of statutory redundancy, meaning somebody with 18 years service, for instance, is getting the equivalent of a lump sum worth 16 weeks from the company.

Virgin Media Ireland is owned by Liberty Global, the company founded by Irish-American billionaire John Malone.

In another email sent to staff a week after the redundancies were announced, Liberty Global group chief executive Mike Fries announced the company was in a “great position ... with $10 billion of liquidity”.

Last year he told The Irish Times that Virgin Media Ireland was “looking great” and “really on fire”.

Suspicion

The suspicion among staff is that, unlike much mainstream media, Virgin Media Ireland is a profitable operation and the real goal of the redundancies is to maximise revenue for shareholders.

In August, three months before the redundancy announcement, Mr Hanway reported that Virgin Media had annual growth of 3.5 per cent with revenues of €225 million. “The Virgin Media Ireland team has delivered great results in the first half of 2019,” he told staff.

Virgin Media Ireland did not answer queries from The Irish Times as to the profitability of its operations last year or in the first half of this year. It said the job cuts are happening in the “context of a constantly competitive and challenging media and telecommunications market environment”.

Those affected, it claims, are not “within the collective bargaining group”. Both unions say this is not the case and that their members could be impacted.

During the previous round of redundancies in 2015, no distinction was made between unionised and non-unionised employees, says Unite trade union official Brendan Byrne.

“It was only when this British company, who as far as I am aware, is anti-union became involved,” he said.

“Irrespective of who is in our outside the bargaining group, why should one group of workers be treated differently with regards to a redundancy package than others?

“They are treating Irish workers differently and pitting one worker against another, which is disgraceful.”

Divide and rule

The company denies it is operating a divide and rule policy and call itself a “caring and responsible employer” which has carried out a consultation process in a “sensitive and appropriate manner”.

“The wellbeing of all of our staff is foremost in this process. We have constantly made every possible effort to minimise the potential impact of this process for our colleagues,” it added.

Virgin Media Ireland said the threat of strike action is “totally unwarranted” and the total number of actual redundancies has been reduced to 40.

Nevertheless, the process has left a bitter taste among staff who fear for the future.

“You have a raft of people joining the union, not through pay roll but through direct debit so the company won’t know to detect them,” said one ex-employee.

“The management makes decisions and there is literally no talking to anybody. I can’t stomach the company. I would rather retrain.”