Tears as 70 workers leave Ballymena Gallaher's factory for final time
My last shift after 32 years was surreal, says employee
Around 70 workers at the JTI Gallaher tobacco factory on the outskirts of Ballymena have clocked out of the manufacturing plant for the last time.
When the staff - some in tears - walked through the gates for the final time at 6pm yesterday, it marked the beginning of the end for one of the Co Antrim town's biggest employers.
Ballymena is bracing itself as more than 1,700 well-paid manufacturing jobs at Gallaher and the Michelin tyre factory are shed over the next two years.
Gallaher later confirmed that by the end of this week around 500 jobs will have gone - almost two thirds of the total workforce of 877 at the Lisnafillan plant at Galgorm.
Around another 300 are set to go before the factory shuts completely in May next year.
Emotional staff spilled out of the factory on Tuesday night and revealed there had been tears, hugs and handshakes among friends, some of whom have been colleagues for over 40 years.
Ivor Currie (57), a grandfather, worked in the factory for over three decades and shook hands with long-term colleague Sammy Clyde as he left the car park.
Mr Currie summed up the mood, saying: "It was my last shift and it was sort of surreal. People really didn't know what to do and what to expect.
"I am in there 32 years and it was a funny feeling. It was the last shift and we were still producing cigarettes up to the last minute, although production stopped at 4.30pm before we left at 6pm and we were able to say goodbye to our friends.
"There was a lot of hugging, we were a close team. A lot of people have been together for a long time. It was very sad."
As to the future, he said he will consider his options over the summer.
He added: "Everybody seems to be looking for part-time work, so I don't know whether there will be any success or not."
Many workers were too distraught to comment. One man simply said: "It's a sad day for Ballymena".
One woman who had worked there for 43 years, but didn't want to give her name, said: "There were a mixture of emotions. Some people were crying and people were hugging each other all day."
With 860 jobs also to go at Michelin in Ballymena by 2018 - and hundreds of jobs at firms contracted to the two closing factories also set to go - Ballymena's local economy is set to lose out on well over £100m a year.
Many commentators fear it could see an exodus from the town, as people search for work.
This week's job losses coincide with a new Tobacco Products Directive - from this Friday, 10-packs and menthols will be banned and boxes mostly covered in health warnings.
Robert Bisaillon, JTI UK's manufacturing vice president, said: "JTI would like to extend its deepest thanks to all employees that are leaving the company over the coming days. Their dedication over the years and their continued commitment and professionalism since the announcement of the factory closure has been exemplary. We would like to wish them well for the future".
In the autumn of 2014, when the JTI closure was announced, the company said the restructuring followed "significant and sustained changes impacting its global business." It added: "The challenging economic environment, excise tax pressure coupled with illegal trade has triggered industry volume contraction in a number of key European countries. This is compounded by the need to comply with legislation, including the revised EU Tobacco Products Directive which will significantly reduce the number of pack formats to be produced for various markets."
In 2015 the firm rejected a trade union proposal aimed at saving 500 jobs by making Ballymena a centre of excellence for cigars and pouch tobacco.