Northern Ireland’s beleaguered economy has been dealt a double jobs blow with news that two high-profile companies are pulling out.
As politicians remained locked in talks over the devolution of policing and justice, news emerged that 350 jobs are set to go at manufacturers Hughes Christensen and Nortel.
Drill-bit manufacturer Hughes Christensen’s US parent company said it intends to shut its factory in east Belfast after 55 years due to falling demand for its products from the oil and gas industry, putting 210 people out of work.
The relocation of its operations to its Texas headquarters follows more than 100 redundancies at the Belfast facility last year.
“We had hoped that the redundancies we made during 2009 would allow us to continue bit manufacturing at The Woodlands, Texas, and here in Belfast. However, we have determined, in the face of expectations for significantly weaker demand for Tricone bits, that we can only support a single facility to make these bits,” the company said.
“The strong performance of the people of the Hughes Christensen Belfast facility makes this proposal, though necessary from the perspective of this global business, especially difficult.”
Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster expressed her disappointment. “It is highly regrettable that Baker Hughes, after careful consideration of various options, have announced that Hughes Christensen Company, Belfast, is entering into a 90-day consultation process.”
She added: “Invest NI will continue to liaise with the senior US and local management team in an effort to minimise the impact of this announcement.”
Meanwhile, the Unite union said US multinational Avaya — which bought the enterprise division of bankrupt Canadian firm Nortel last month — has informed 140 staff it is not planning to stay in Northern Ireland.
Avaya declined to comment but Unite regional organiser Sean Smyth said a letter the union had received stated the company had started the 90-day consultation process with Nortel workers and
that it was the firm’s “strategic intent to exit the Monkstown facility”.
Mrs Foster said: “I understand that local employees have been verbally briefed about Avaya’s intention to consolidate as part of a European restructuring plan.
“At this stage, it is not clear what exactly this means for Northern Ireland but Invest NI continues to build relationships with Avaya. She added: “It would be inappropriate to speculate further until Avaya makes a formal announcement.”
The union believes as many as 200 more jobs could be lost at local firms which supply Nortel.
“I’m absolutely shellshocked,” said Mr Smyth. “The company seems to have been here only to get their hands on the product not the people. They were only interested in profit.”
He added: “Our politicians need to stop messing about and wise up so that we make sure companies are not coming here for a quick buck but are here to stay.”
Unite also said it was seeking an urgent meeting with the management of Hughes Christensen, saying the closure had come “completely out of the blue”.
News that US-based Avaya plans to exit Northern Ireland will be a particularly bitter blow for Mrs Foster.
Following the $900m deal for the Nortel unit in December she welcomed the fact that the future of 140 of the remaining 350 Nortel workers had been secured.
Around 200 workers remain at the plant while administrator Ernst & Young completes deals to sell its other assets to other telecoms companies.
Nortel filed for bankruptcy protection in January, blaming the economic crisis for derailing its turnaround efforts.
Around 90 workers were controversially laid off by E&Y in March without redundancy pay.
Its 34-acre Monkstown facility was long held up as a beacon of the new and prosperous Northern Ireland, employing as many as 1,000 people at its peak.
Ulster Unionist MLA Michael Copeland said the job losses reflected badly on politicians embroiled in talks over the devolution of policing and justice.
Alliance councillor Michael Long said the Hughes Christensen closure was sad news.