Staff leave Gallaher's for final time as production is cut back ahead of closure
Sadness at the gates as workers - some with firm for almost 45 years - say goodbye
Workers losing their jobs at JTI Gallaher have told of their sadness on their last day at the Ballymena firm.
While production staff left the factory for the final time yesterday, around 150 people will retain jobs at the premises until January next year making products including rolling tobacco.
Some of the people who left yesterday had been with the company for 45 years.
They are losing their jobs at the same time as new legislation is being introduced forcing cigarettes to be sold in plain packaging and withdrawing boxes of 10 from the market.
A worker at the factory told this paper he had one week left before he was made redundant, ending a career with JTI of more than 38 years.
The 60-year-old also admitted that while he was sad that people were losing their jobs, he was also looking forward to some time off.
The Ballymena man, who wished to remain anonymous, added: "Friday is the cut-off day for the new legislation to be brought in, and that is why production of the cigarettes has already stopped.
"Most of the staff involved in production have already left but have been offered gardening leave on full pay.
"Normally there would be a shift on a Saturday, but that has also ended as it is overtime, and there is no more overtime from now on.
"I am 60 years old, so in a way the factory closing has come at the best time it could have for me personally.
"But I feel sorry for other staff who have been here shorter terms than me."
Most of the workers leaving the premises at lunchtime yesterday were office staff, none of whom wished to comment.
Ronan McCann, the president of the Ballymena Borough Chamber of Commerce and Industry, visited the factory to show support for those facing redundancy.
He said: "We all knew this day was coming, but that still does not make it any easier for the staff who won't be returning here next week.
"Gallahers has been a good employer for generations of people from this area and beyond. If you got a job here, it was seen as being a job for life. My thoughts are with the employees and their families at this time."
Mr McCann went on to say that the job losses would certainly hit Ballymena, but at this stage no one knows how hard.
He added: "When the news first came down, it was a huge blow both to the employees and to the town.
"It is too early to assess the exact impact this will have on Ballymena as a town, but over time that will become clear.
"I know there are support measures in place to help the staff, and I hope some of them start up their own businesses in the future."
Robert Bisaillon, JTI UK's manufacturing vice-president, forwarded his best wishes to the affected workers.
"JTI would like to extend its deepest thanks to all employees leaving the company over the coming days," he said.
"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."
It was also a tough time for two Bulgarian lorry drivers who work for a Dutch haulage company tasked with taking the final loads of cigarettes to Hungary.
One of them said: "It is a sad day for us. We have been coming to Ballymena to collect cigarettes for two years and delivering them into Europe.
"This could be our final run and that is very sad for us as we have enjoyed coming to Ballymena all this time. I hope the staff here will find new jobs very soon."