Irish workers intensify struggle to save jobs at the Harland and Wolff shipyard

The 158-year-old Harland & Wolff shipyard, located in Belfast, landed in trouble when its current owner, Dolphin Drilling, filed for bankruptcy earlier this year.

August 24, 2019 by Peoples Dispatch
Shipyard workers protest-Northern Ireland
Workers occupy the Harland & Wolff shipyard, in Belfast, demanding protection for their jobs.

Workers at the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast have intensified their protest, demanding security for their jobs and skills. The shipyard’s administration commenced the insolvency procedure on August 7 after its owner declared bankruptcy. The workers have been organizing various protests, and have occupied the shipyard since July 30, under the leadership of various trade unions, including Unite, the GMB and the Northern Ireland committee of the Irish Congress of Trades Unions (ICTU).

The 158-year-old shipyard in Northern Ireland is specialized in ship repair, conversion, and offshore construction. Famous for having built ships like the Titanic, for the White Star Line, it has made a shift towards renewable energy, including offshore wind and tidal turbines, since 2013. 

The shipyard, which currently employs 132 employees, landed in trouble when its current owner, Fred Olsen Energy (now known as Dolphin Drilling), a Norwegian offshore drilling company, filed for bankruptcy earlier this year. Following the crisis, Harland and Wolff entered into an ‘administration’ for the resolution of its insolvency process on August 7. The accountancy firm BDO has been formally appointed to oversee the Belfast shipyard, in expectation of potential bidders for its sale.

At this juncture, the workers have resorted to protests under the banner ‘Save Our Shipyard’ and occupied the site, demanding protection for their jobs. It has been reported that the UK government considers the crisis at Harland and Wolff merely a “commercial issue”. Such a response from the government has irked several trade unions, which have also demanded the re-nationalization of the shipyard. The company, operational since 1861, was nationalized from 1977 to 1989.

Meanwhile, on August 18, the Union News reported that the unions Unite and the GMB have reached a deal with the BDO administrators, ensuring that when a buyer is found, jobs will be transferred under the new ownership on existing terms and conditions. 

The Communist Party of Ireland (CPI) has expressed its solidarity with the workers at Harland and Wolff and welcomed the action taken by them in defense of their livelihood.

In its statement, the CPI said, “Harland and Wolff should be nationalized. This could provide tens of thousands of jobs for workers in Ireland. The demise of the shipyard is a direct result of the drive by monopoly capitalism to seek out greater profits, shifting manufacturing to the Global South in the insatiable search for maximum profits by exploiting local unregulated workers in sweatshops for poverty pay. Imperialism has played its part in the difficulties that the shipyard’s present owner, Dolphin Drilling, is experiencing as a result of the global crash in oil prices in 2014, resulting from the geopolitical power struggle to control the production of oil. The British government’s national shipbuilding strategy, launched in September 2017 is an abject failure”.

“Any future use of these shipbuilding yards should be for non-military shipbuilding and engineering, not contributing to imperialist global military strategy of permanent tension and wars. Harland and Wolff has been involved in recent years in the development of wind energy. The production of equipment for this industry should be continued and expanded into other areas, such as wave power. The building of a sustainable engineering base in Ireland can be achieved only by developing an all-Ireland industrial strategy, a strategy that is environmentally sustainable and democratically controlled and accountable to working people,” the CPI added.

The unions had accused the Tory government of sacrificing British shipbuilding to “the free market” earlier in February as well, in the wake of the loss of over 150 jobs at the Babcock’s Rosyth shipyard.

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