Viewpoint: Ulster must hit new jobs target
The collapse of Reid Transport in Cloughmills just four weeks before Christmas is a bitter blow for the 200 employees who are being made redundant and the 30 sub-contractors who are owed tens of thousands of pounds.
The anger of workers who find themselves out of a job - and without pay for their final week - is compounded by the fact that five weeks ago, the company denied rumours that it was in trouble. The directors issued a letter telling employees that their positions were safe.
This ploy, it seems, was all part of an unsuccessful 11th hour bid by the directors to sell the business to a third party. While this may have been done for valid business reasons, it served to mislead employees who now feel badly let down.
Because there is no money in the company's kitty, workers cannot expect to receive any compensation. Sadly, the best they can hope for is the statutory minimum redundancy payment of one week's pay for each year of service, plus back pay and holiday allowances.
Although Ministers have made all the right noises, the Government cannot be expected to provide compensation from taxpayers' funds for employees of failed private sector companies.
Understandably, the immediate focus is on the workers, but many of the sub-contractors are in an even worse plight. In some cases, they say they are owed up to £35,000 for work undertaken on behalf of Reid Transport over the past couple of months, and the implications for them are grave.
While the reasons for the demise of Reid Transport are not yet established, there are bound to be questions about how much money was soaked up by the company's involvement in rally sport sponsorship. Pictures of bosses celebrating with rally drivers do not sit happily with images of workers protesting outside their closed depot.
There is no doubt, however, that margins in the haulage sector are tighter than ever. With fuel costs rising, and the banks tightening their belts as a result of the credit crunch, the fear is that there could be further casualties.
But while jobs are going in Cloughmills, there are rays of hope elsewhere. Hundreds of retail jobs at the new £320m Victoria Square centre are on offer at a jobs fair being held today and tomorrow at the Waterfront Hall.
The face of employment in Northern Ireland is changing and it is gratifying that the unemployment rate of 3.8% is close to a record low. But the province is still a low-wage economy, and this must change if genuine prosperity is to develop.
The Executive has set a target of the creation of 6,500 high value new jobs from inward investment over the next three years. It is a challenging target but it must be achieved if storms such as Reid Transport are to be weathered.