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Wednesday 8 February 2023 Dublin: 8°C
Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland Pat Gorman from Cork shows his support for Vita Cortex workers at a public rally outside Leinster House in Dublin in January.
Column 'We have a lot to lose if we fail' - 100 days of the Vita Cortex sit-in
It’s exactly a hundred days since the former Vita Cortex workers began their sit-in at the Cork plant. Their support campaign’s co-ordinator explains why their protest will continue…

TODAY MARKS 100 days since former workers at the Vita Cortex plant began their sit-in at the Kinsale Road premises in Cork when management closed the plant and said it could not pay statutory redundancy to the workers.

A fight like this, such that it is, would never have ended up being just about workers getting a just redundancy payment. The appalling way in which these workers have been treated has ensured that it has become much more than that.

And although these workers find themselves at the coalface, the Vita Cortex struggle has become a stand on behalf of ordinary people everywhere – and not just in Ireland.

It has struck a nerve in places far from these shores and in locations with diverse and contrasting political ideologies such as “capitalist” America and “communist” China – perspectives on the dilution of these ideologies accepted.

The Vita Cortex story has injustice on three levels. It is a corporate and industrial injustice in that it represents the age-old scenario of the “middle-class merchants”, as Yeats would have described them, swindling the worker until they can confidently add the “half-pence to the pence”.

Secondly, the workers find themselves in a microcosm of the economic injustice being perpetuated against the Irish people as whole. We live under a political system and body of law that follows an underlying philosophy that allows for the bailout of failed and corrupt banks but which, on the other hand, prevents these honest and loyal workers from getting what they were promised.

You won’t find any senior bondholders walking the factory floor at Cortex. What you will find are good people with integrity who have lived every day of their lives to raise their kids. Some of them have over 40 years of service at Cortex. From getting to know them over the last three months, I can tell that they are actually in shock at the way they are being treated.

This brings me to the final and most alarming injustice of them all. What is happening at Vita Cortex is a humanitarian injustice. Some people will probably sneer at the mere suggestion of this and cry “Hyperbole!” That is fair enough.

I tend to rationalise events such as the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, the war crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia, or the famine in Ethiopia by leaning on the psychological comfort that we live in a modern, tolerant and civilised society. I tell myself that such atrocities could never happen here. And to a large extent, with some notable exceptions, this is a comfort I rightfully hold.

‘It is taking a serious toll’

While I am in no way comparing systematic, mass murder or widespread famine to a protracted industrial dispute, I cannot but question the moral values of a system that would leave these human beings to virtually live in factory, sleeping on slabs of foam, because they felt they had no other avenue by which to secure their rights.

Believe me it is taking a serious toll. Stress, sleep deprivation for those on the night-shift and the shredding away of both the family and social fabric of their lives are all major concerns.

The mood in the camp was summed-up well by Henry O’Reilly, a worker with over 40 years service, when he said:

I would imagine that in the 91 days, anyone who is involved in the protest would have felt on 91 occasions that they were going home and that they were never coming back and they never wanted to be part of this ever again and I’d say on about 182 occasions they all felt I want to be part of this, I’m not giving in, what were asking for is morally correct and just .

We have a humanitarian issue when any person is threatened with the prospect of being stripped of their human dignity. And we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking otherwise.

A zero-tolerance policy on human degradation is the only policy worth having. We need to be quick in stamping out the spark of any attempt to dehumanise members of our community, lest it catch fire. And that should include holding wealthy business men to account when they attempt to exploit ordinary people.

After all we live more civilised, more educated and more enlightened than any of those nasty places where human suffering is such an accepted way of life. Don’t we?

The one thing that is clear to me is the huge difference between the moral fabric of the Cork and Irish public and that of the system under which we live. When I say ‘system’ I mean the architecture of governance and our body of law.

The workers have met with Enda Kenny, Eamon Gilmore, Gerry Adams and Micheál Martin. It is incumbent on all leaders, of every political perspective, to change this architecture.

Over the last 100 days, the public have stood with the exploited workers in Cork. The distinction, between system and society, is clear for all to see. Continue to stand with them. We have a lot to lose if we fail.

Darren O’Keeffe is the co-ordinator of the support the Vita Cortex workers online campaign. He is a PhD candidate and part time lecturer at University College Cork.

Darren O'Keeffe
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