30 July 1998 Edition

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Taking the Apple out of Cork

By Roisín de Rossa

This week the machinery for the PCB operation at Apple Computers at Hollyhill, Cork, starts shipping out. It's on its way to Singapore, and with it go the livelihoods of at least 550 people.

Apple has been reticent about just how many jobs are to go along with the PCB (Printed Circuit Board) facility. Amidst headlines that Mary Harney had saved the Apple jobs, and that jobs were safe in Apple's Cork plant, shop stewards say that there will be 200 voluntary redundancies of so-called `permanent' staff, and between 300 and 400 layoffs of the temporary workers. It's about a third of the workforce.

This is just the start of the `downsizing'. Apple contracted out a lot of work to local firms - Horman's Electronics, Walsh Western and O'Connell's Transport, Chip Electrics, GB Insulation, Dovertrop, and many other companies must all be affected.

``Some people have worked in the company for 10 years or so. Some have been temporary workers for 4 or 5 years. Temporary workers have no entitlements - no redundancy money. They are not even in the Union, (SIPTU). How will they meet their payments? The closure will bring real hardship to many of us,'' says, ex-shop steward, Frank Wallace.

Holyhill lies amongst some of the worst unemployment blackspots that reach over the back of Cork's Northside. If Apple's Cork plant was one of the paws of the Celtic Tiger it did not substantially affect the area which has unemployment rates of around 80%. But, as Don O'Leary, Sinn Fein community activist, says, ``Apple took very few on from this part of the city. The few from here who did get jobs in Apple, they could then move away into private housing, which now, with the lay-offs, they will not be able to afford.''

Apple is shy about declaring its profits, or just how much is earned in Hollyhill. But after massive losses of over $2 billion, Apple this year is back in the black, with earnings in the first quarter of 1998 at £34 million, and quarterly value sales at $1.578bn.

Ultimately it is all in the hands of the multi-millionaire boss, appropriately named Steve Jobs. Along with his friend Steve Wozniak, Jobs, then in his early 20s, took America by storm when he started Apple back in the late 70s. In 1985 Apple had a 15% market share. Now it is down to 4%.

Conditions were good in Apple. Basic gross pay for assembly workers is around £240 for a 36 hour week, with 5% annual pay increases. Before Christmas management introduced a 12 hour shift system. There was talk of a strike. ``There are a group of workers in here who are stirring up trouble. We're going to force them out. They are a cancer on this factory,'' was management's response at a meeting of factory floor workers. It wasn't much different from Jobs' attitude to his employees. ``We've 10,000 mediocre employees that have to be cleaned out,'' he is reported as saying.

``But,'' Frank says, ``it was very democratic in the company. You'd call management by their first names, all new style human resource management. Four shop stewards were elected to join a Partnership Process run by IBEC's Irish Productivity Council. They took us off to wine and dine, in the best hotels, on overtime. They talked about the need to increase productivity in the PCB area. but when we raised the issue of rewards and recognition, the management side set up a subcommittee. The only reward on offer was job security. It looks a bit thin now under the circumstances of closure of the PCB operation.''

Frank is angry. He says: ``The company got a £15m grant from the IDA to finance the new machinery for the PCB operation... and this in addition to the tax breaks. Look at it. 10% profits tax, and no witholding tax. That is all government money - our money - helping to finance a $10 billion company, owned by multi-millionaires. It doesn't make a lot of sense, least not to the people of Cork.''

But it does to the IDA. The IDA in its annual report published in June says that it expects to lose 5% of the electronic industry jobs annually, but anticipates 3 new jobs annually at the hi-tech end in their place. ``Too bad for the pockets where the Celtic Tiger had its paws stuck in, like Clonmel (Seagate), Limerick (Dell), Galway (Digital) and so on,'' says Frank.

What happened? ``Bad management and waste,'' says Frank Wallace ex-shop steward in the factory. `It was incredible. Computers which couldn't be sold. They took a hatchet to smash them. Workers offered to buy them, cheap. No, said management - the bookwork would be too costly! Could they not have given them to the local schools, community groups?'' he asks.

``They've eight assembly lines, and one line would do 60 computers in a night. You could go home then. Management says that the computer industry is seasonal. They'd take on temporary workers on a Monday morning and put them out on a Monday evening. `Seasonal' is just another word for bad management and bad planning in the computer industry. Its not like picking spuds.''

Another Apple worker explains: ``Management introduced new labour saving machinery to get components from the warehouse to the assembly line called Automatic Search and Retrieve System. They had little computer operated buggies, each with electronic cameras, special lifts and cranes to move them through the warehouse. They never worked. A visiting delegation wanted to see them in operation. `Hold on a minute.' said the foreman, `I'll just call the lads.' Two of them hid behind the buggy and pushed it! The lifts, and a specially constructed tunnel - the only people who use them now are workers dropping over to the coffee machine.'

Some shareholders blame the previous CEO, Gil Amelio, for the losses. This might have had something to do with his pay which was fixed at $990,000 a year, plus a two component bonus, which guaranteed Amelio a further $1 million a year, for 5 years (irrespective of company results) just for showing up to work.

Jobs himself has another word to explain the losses - the Gil factor. Ridiculing Amelio, Jobs coined the phrase `Gil-o-meter' as a gauge of stupidity - two `gils' being dumber than one!

Apple's losses might also have had a lot to do with their troubled dealings with Microsoft and its boss, Bill Gates, supposedly now worth over $50 billion in personal wealth. However with Amelio's departure, Jobs is back as interim CEO in Apple and in a partnership with Microsoft which ultimately got to use Mac's icon system in the place of DOS, something which everyone who uses computers is very pleased about.

To reclaim the market, Jobs has gone for `Pro, Go and Whoa'. Pro is the `93 Mac Desktop with a chip made by Motorola, twice the speed of a Pentium II. Go is a laptop to cost below $1000, which the workers call the luggable, and the IMac, which is to be on the shelves in the US in August.

IMac is a see-through computer, with translucent keys and a mouse which lights up. There is some talk that its production may be moved to Cork.

Although Steve Jobs is back in the saddle, the jobs are still going to Singapore. And it is not because Jobs wants money. ``I have more money than I ever wanted in my life,'' he says. ``Nice for him,'' says Frank. Amelio, who was dismissed by the board and wrote of his well-paid experiences describes Jobs as a conniving backstabber ``obsessed with power''.

Whether he is or not, assembly worker jobs are going to the Far East, because wages are one tenth of Irish wages and with the collapsing Asian currencies, it gets cheaper and cheaper for the West to buy into their economies.

``Jobs is a vegetarian - not just any old vegetarian, but a Vegan. He doesn't eat honey cause it upsets the bees to take it away from them. Its a pity he doesn't worry about how it upsets the workers to take their jobs away,'' says Frank.

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