Michelin workers reeling from massive job loss blow at Ballymena truck tyre factory
Slump in sales and cheap imports blamed for factory closure decision - Move described as 'body blow' to economy by Robinson and McGuinness
The First and deputy First Ministers have described Michelin's decision to close its Ballymena factory - with the loss of 860 jobs - as a "body blow" to the local economy.
Staff were summoned to a meeting at the plant at noon on Tuesday and they were informed of the decision.
The company said the factory was outdated and costs to upgrade were "prohibitive" and it has begun consulting with employees.
The plant is expected to wind down until its closure in mid-2018.
In a briefing given to staff and seen by the Belfast Telegraph, Michelin said its other European plants were more competitive, energy costs were high and the Ballymena location put it at a "disadvantage".
Work has stopped at the factory until 7am on Thursday, allowing staff at home on fully pay.
Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness pledged to do all they could for workers.
They said: "The Executive will make every effort to alleviate the impact of the job losses and ensure the necessary support is available to those affected directly and indirectly.
"Just over a year ago the workers of JTI Gallaher in Ballymena received similar news and so this combined with today's announcement is a real body blow to the local economy.
"The Executive is willing to meet with management, workers, trade unions and all local representatives to see if there is anything further we as an Executive can do."
Irish Congress of Trade Unions assistant general secretary Peter Bunting said the threat to jobs had been repeatedly raised with ministers.
"And yet, nothing was done to avert this catastrophe for the 860 workers in Michelin, the 500 contractors, and the wider economy of Ballymena, already reeling after over 1,000 jobs lost with the shifting of JTI tobacco to Eastern Europe," he said.
"The trade union movement has consistently called for a manufacturing strategy and the NI Executive and for action to address energy costs here, which are the highest for large manufacturers on both islands."
Michelin has 112,300 employees worldwide and produces over 178 million tyres in 68 sites in 17 countries.
It said the move was part of a reorganisation of its activities in the UK, Italy and Germany. It is investing £65m in its Dundee and Stoke-on-Trent operations.
The company said: "The proposal to run down the truck tyre factory in Ballymena has been made in light of the specific difficulties the site has been experiencing for several years: very aggressive competition and manufacturing overcapacity on the truck tire market, heavy logistics costs due to its location, and high production costs principally due to the price of energy.
An Urgent Oral Question on the Michelin Plant in Ballymena has been scheduled for 3:30pm in the Assembly Chamber. #onthehill— NI Assembly (@niassembly) November 3, 2015
"An employee consultation process will begin immediately regarding the run-down proposal. The Ballymena factory currently employs 860 people, and MTPLC is committed to supporting those employees during the consultation and in the forthcoming months."
The company said it would be providing £5m in investment for business start-ups as well as an enhanced redundancy scheme.
Michelin Ballymena factory manager John Milsted worked at the factory for two years and had been a Michelin employee for the past 36 years.
He said: "The decision was not made easily, but is due to the dramatic transformation of the truck tyre market since 2007.
"Sales have slumped and we are competing with cheap imports."
North Antrim MP Ian Paisley described the news as "apocalyptic".
"My heart goes out to the workers at this time," he said.
"For north Antrim this means the loss of millions of pounds of wages annually and is frankly hard to come to terms with.
"I understand that the announcement is part of a wider EU re-structuring by the company and anyone who has followed tyre manufacturing trends, as I have, will have noticed the impact that cheap Far Eastern imports have had on Goodyear and how over-capacity has resulted in re-structuring elsewhere.
"The north Antrim factory has put up a valiant fight, but today they have bowed their head."
He continued: "I have for several years campaigned for reduced energy costs to assist this company and I know that much work was done to assist them from central government.
"But the re-structuring has not saved the north Antrim plant and frankly the UK operation, whilst they have cut off an arm today, I believe their ultimate survival is not certain.
"I have spoken with Michelin at some length and I have asked that those who are in position to be re-located to other plants, that this is offered.
I have also asked that a most generous package will be put in place for workers and importantly I have secured from the Michelin Development Community Fund (MDCF), £5million to assist the local community with new employment start-ups.
"This will go some way in creating fresh opportunities.
"I have today tabled an urgent question in Parliament and intend on raising this matter tomorrow."
Sinn Fein MLA Daithi McKay said the announcement was "devastating".
Mr McKay said: "The news that Michelin is being run down is devastating, not only to Ballymena but much further afield. This is yet another blow to the manufacturing sector in north Antrim.
"More than 800 workers and their families have been left in shock at this news just weeks before Christmas.
"The company needs to work closely with workers in the weeks and months ahead as they and their families face enormous challenges.
"The Enterprise Minister should immediately set out what his department's plan of action is to ensure workers are offered retraining or upskilling to enable them to find further employment.
"I have tabled an urgent question to the Enterprise Minister asking him what he plans to do in conjunction with Executive colleagues to support these workers in the time ahead.”
The announcement follows after nearby tobacco company JTI announced the closure of is Ballymena Gallaher's plant.
Union Unite blamed the Executive's inaction for the decision.
Davy Thompson, Unite Regional Coordinating Officer expressed his union’s deep regret over the announcement.
He said: "This announcement is a cruel blow to the workforce in the mouth of Christmas and is devastating news for the north east economy and that of Northern Ireland as a whole.
"The proposal to close the plant comes within a year of a decision by JTI-Gallagher to close its Ballymena site with the loss of almost 900 jobs.
“In addition to the 860 workers who are directly employed by Michelin on the site, there are approximately 500 contractors and many more in the wider economy who now face the threat of redundancy as a result of this announcement. These were highly-paid, secure jobs reflecting the progressive employment practices of Michelin and their loss will devastate the retail and services economy in this region.
“Unite has repeatedly demanded action from ministers in relation to the high energy costs, the protracted difficulties experienced by Michelin in obtaining a connection for a proposed combined-heat power plant and the pressing need for capital support to modernise the plant. Ministerial inaction has resulted in a situation where high energy costs have left the Ballymena plant having the second lowest operating efficiency and now facing closure.
“A Unite delegation met Enterprise Minister Jonathan Bell in July to raise our concerns for employment at Michelin as well as the need for a proactive Manufacturing strategy but we are still awaiting his response to our specific proposals or any commitment to such a strategic approach to the sector.
"Sadly, this devastating news is not unexpected but is reflective of the failure by the NI Executive as a whole to act.
“Given the long lead-in time until the plant is proposed to be closed, Unite is hopeful that we might convince Michelin to reverse this decision.
"We believe that there can still be a future for Michelin in Ballymena and we will put the same effort to save these jobs as we did in the case of JTI-Gallagher a year ago.
"Even at this late stage, we remain hopeful that corporate management may reconsider their decision to close this site if the NI Executive intervenes decisively to address the underlying reasons for this decision”, Mr Thompson concluded.