Belfast Bombardier staff were told of 1,000 job losses by text messages
'It's bad enough to learn your livelihood is under threat but it shouldn't be by social media'
Scores of Bombardier workers learned their jobs were at risk yesterday via text messages from relatives who heard the news long before the employees were due to gather at a 'high noon' showdown with management.
They were eventually told 1,000 jobs were being axed over the next two years.
"It's bad enough to discover that your livelihood is under threat in the normal way, but you shouldn't find out on social media," said one man at the factory who didn't want to be named.
"It was my wife who got in touch with me to let me know the grim news."
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An angry Davy Thompson from the Unite union in Belfast said: "It was absolute madness. The company were to do a briefing at 12 o'clock but it appears that the announcement of the 7,000 global job losses was released from Canada an hour earlier and it seems that's the way the word got out.
"That is a very disappointing position for us. It's certainly not the right way to do it."
Other workers leaving the plant yesterday said they had been fearing the worst for weeks after reading alarming stories about Bombardier's financial losses in newspapers in Canada where the firm has its headquarters.
"But we were still stunned to find out just how grave the situation was," Mr Thompson said.
"We knew over the past 14 months that the picture wasn't good with the complementary workforce at Bombardier losing so many people and there was a bit of a hit of about 300 staff on management grades too."
Financial pressures which have mounted on Bombardier, the largest manufacturing company in Northern Ireland, have centred on their new CSeries short-haul passenger jet which has been developed in competition with aerospace giants Boeing and Airbus.
The CSeries project has run up colossal debts with the government in Quebec pumping in almost £700m last year alone, but sales have failed to match expectations, though Bombardier announced yesterday that Air Canada had signed letters of intent to buy 75 of them.
However, Bombardier's vice president Michael Ryan said employment in Belfast on the CSeries for which the local workforce make the wings has been going up and will continue to increase.
Davy Thompson said: "We believe long term that the CSeries will be a good investment and will prove fruitful for Bombardier, but the issue we face in these type of job losses is that the market forces in terms of the older type of passenger and business jets aren't selling so there's a dip in the middle of the company's sales overall.
"And the reality is that if a regional jet is cut it may not have any effect on Bombardier in Toronto or Montreal but Belfast works on all the programmes so everything will impact on our factory."
Mr Ryan insisted Bombardier was committed to Belfast but a number of employees are worried that the aerospace firm could 'do a Harland and Wolff' as one worker called it.
PUP councillor and local GP Dr John Kyle said the threatened redundancies had sent tremors of depression across east Belfast.
"There's a massive pall of anxiety and gloom hanging over the area that will take a long time to clear. Bombardier have been a really good employer here with excellent wages, a highly-trained and committed workforce and a tremendous apprenticeship scheme
"That makes it all the more disappointing that difficulties with selling their wares which are beyond Belfast's control have forced them to make people redundant in the city. A lot of the people who will be going are in their 50s and 60s who will find it much more difficult to find comparable work again."
The job losses in Belfast will have a major spin-off impact on a large supply chain that Bombardier has right across Northern Ireland, though management sources said the lower skilled and lower value work which the firm might be offloading from their plant could be offered to them if they diversify their operations.
Rev Mervyn Gibson, the minister of Westbourne Presbyterian Church on the Newtownards Road which is known as the 'shipyard' church, is worried that smaller businesses in east Belfast will also be badly affected by the Bombardier cuts.
"The job losses will hurt a lot of people in east Belfast and not just the Bombardier workers who come from all over the province to work in the factory. I know some shops in the area were on their knees because one major road leading to Bombardier was closed for months for a sewage scheme and the workers stopped going there. This will be another hammer-blow."
Davy Thompson agrees.
"If you don't have people with disposable income, your service sector goes because people just don't have the money to spend."
The Bombardier bombshell is just the latest in a series of seismic employment setbacks for Northern Ireland where thousands of jobs have disappeared at JTI Gallaher and Michelin in Ballymena and FG Wilson with work moving to countries around the world who can do the same work at a fraction of the price.
Mr Thompson called on Stormont politicians to do more to help attract foreign investment in manufacturing.
"Every country in the developed world has a manufacturing strategy but Stormont is lagging behind, and Westminster also has a role to play to build up our infrastructure and cut our transport and energy costs.
East Belfast MLA Sammy Douglas yesterday met his DUP colleague Jonathan Bell who's the Enterprise Minister in the Executive.
Mr Bell, who has met Bombardier's management five times in recent months including two face-to-face sessions in Canada, said he deeply regretted the job cuts.
But he said he believed the future of Bombardier in Northern Ireland was secure.
Tomorrow Sammy Douglas will accompany the East Belfast MP Gavin Robinson and another Assemblyman, Robin Newton, to meet Bombardier's senior executives. Trade union leaders will also have talks with Bombardier's bosses tomorrow but there's an almost palpable sense of despair that there is no chance of saving jobs at a time when so many other workers in the company are losing their jobs as part of a global restructuring shake-up to reduce costs.
Wearing his GP's hat, Dr Kyle said the ripple effects of the job losses on employees in Belfast could be immense. In his surgery at the Holywood Arches, he has had to deal with a range of problems cast up by redundancies in the past.
"Especially for men, I think losing their jobs in their 40s and 50s strikes at the very root of who they are. And to find that they have no work to go to has a significant impact on their mental health and sense of self-esteem.
"All that, of course, predisposes them to other illnesses. Many of them are not physically and mentally as well as they would be if they were going to a job that gives them an income and a sense of purpose. They also lose their workmates, their friends and their social networks that they have known for years."
The reshaping of the industrial landscape in east Belfast has been dramatic over the decades with tens of thousands of jobs vanishing at former powerhouses like the shipyard, the Sirocco Works and now Bombardier.
Secretary of State Theresa Villiers, who's in Washington 'selling' Northern Ireland, doesn't believe that Bombardier have any plans to pull out of their bases in east Belfast and in other parts of the region.
She said: "It is hugely devastating news for the people who are facing redundancy but I think we can all take some comfort from the fact that Bombardier have made it very clear that they are committed to Belfast as a hugely important manufacturing centre for them."