Irish pensioners blast Guinness

Brewing giant accused of unfair policies towards retired workers
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Guinness's annual general meeting in London on Thursday is set for a sharp confrontation between the company and its Irish pensioners.

The retired brewers are furious, believing that the drinks giant is short-changing them over annual increases they claim are due. But the company insists that its pensions policy is fair.

The pensioners' sense of grievance has been fuelled by their contention that workers co-operated in numerous redundancies precisely because of assurances that the purchasing power of pensions would be maintained.

In the early 1970s, the workforce at the original home of Guinness, the St James' Gate Brewery, stood at 3,500. Successive rationalisation schemes reduced that to 1,150 by 1989 and barely 900 now. The group's ongoing Plan 2000 will shed another 500 over the next four years.

Two AGM resolutions backed by the Guinness Retired Staff Association (GRSA) claim the support of thousands of former Guinness workers. They say the company effectively ignored pensioners' representations and disregarded a pension review designed to keep payments in line with those given to workers retiring before or afterwards on equivalent grades.

They say this has left some, who retired from the company between 1982 and 1985, with pensions between 11 and 37 per cent adrift of others with less service and lower final salaries who retired before January 1982 or who are about to do so.

The GRSA says the lack of a pensions regulator in Ireland has forced them to bring their grievance to the AGM. Since they were employed by Irish subsidiaries of the group, the UK Pensions Ombudsman has no power to intervene.

Ireland does, however, have a state-backed Pensions Board with the power to investigate the operation of pension schemes and to represent dissatisfied beneficiaries.

The GRSA chairwoman, Angela Murphy, said last week the company had "failed to honour its claim that all pensioners are treated as fairly as possible".

A complex formula for determining increases allows for inflation payments up to 5 per cent, plus two-thirds of any inflation above that, subject to trading conditions and company profits.

The company is advising shareholders that the dissident groups have the support of only 10 per cent of the pensioners. It says special increases since 1987 have "substantially restored the levels of pensions paid, especially benefiting those in retirement longest".

The pensioners want the board to agree to put the dispute to binding arbitration. The AGM resolutions arose after fractious correspondence between the two sides, in which Guinness reportedly dismissed the pensioners' claims as "misleading and inaccurate".