Waterford Crystal Artisans Lose Their Livelihood

I noted that yesterday a major exhibition celebrating the 250th Anniversary of Wedgwood (founded in 1759) opened at the Daughters of the American Revolution Museum in Washington, D.C. (it runs through Feb. 27, 2010). As you may or may not know, Wedgwood (of the famous china) is part of Waterford Wedgwood plc, the brand’s parent company.

Waterford maintains that it is “the leading brand of premium crystal.” Its web site has a page that features the artisans who create Waterford products (its engraver and master cutters who have worked there for decades). One of those artisans is master cutter Tom Power who began his career there in 1969. His bio says that “One of his great works includes the Waterford Crystal Ball, lowered at the Times Square New Year’s celebration in New York.” Waterford was founded in 1783 in the port town of Waterford, Ireland.

What the site won’t tell you is that on January 5, 2009, parts of the company, including the main Irish and UK operations, were placed in receivership after the heavily-indebted firm failed to find a buyer. The Waterford crystal factory in Kilbarry, Ireland ceased operating and 480 people lost their jobs. But guess what? Those workers continued going to their “jobs” and literally occupied the factory for months, hoping for a solution.

The New York Times reported that “The crystal company has posted huge losses in the past few years, and much of its manufacturing is already done in factories in cheaper countries abroad. The workers fear that all their experience and all their expertise, not to mention the long history of crystal-making in Waterford, are in danger of disappearing.”

“If it’s mass-produced, the craftsmanship we have here could be lost forever, so we’re fighting for that as well,” one worker told the Times. Sean Egan was an engraver “who had been an apprentice at the factory for a decade, from age 15 to 25, before he was allowed to wield his tools unsupervised. He is 50 now. ‘It’s extremely hard to learn, and machines can’t do it,’ he said. It’s like playing the piano. You can learn three chords and get away with it, but if you want to learn classical piano, you have to practice all the time.”

“When Mr. Egan heard that he had lost his job and came to find the doors locked, he was filled with an outrage similar, he said, to that felt by people thrown out of their homes during the Irish famine. ‘That is no way to treat people, to stop them from coming into their own factory,’ he said.”

KPS Capital Partners, a private equity company based in New York, purchased Waterford Wedgwood in March, but the Kilbarry factory was not part of the sale. The irony is that the factory is one of southeast Ireland’s biggest tourist attractions, drawing about 350,000 visitors a year.

About a week ago, the remaining 170 Waterford workers were given their notice, the Irish Times reported. A spokesman for trade union Unite, which represents the staff, said it was a “sad day for the area and for Ireland.” Indeed.

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