Global manufacturer Caterpillar is set to move 700 jobs from Larne to India and other sites in a devastating setback for Northern Ireland's manufacturing base.
The US-owned equipment giant told staff in a conference call yesterday morning that it was "contemplating" making 700 redundancies among its 1,600 staff here as part of restructuring.
And the job cuts will be made in its factory in Larne - the heartland of FG Wilson, the family-owned company bought by Caterpillar in 1999.
The company's main work in Northern Ireland is making generators although it also produces axles and transmissions for trucks in Springvale, west Belfast.
Caterpillar is now starting a consultation over the job losses and said that if the cuts go ahead, they will be made over the next 18 months. It said the move was unrelated to Brexit, the Covid-19 pandemic and the end of the furlough scheme.
If the cuts go ahead, a spokesman confirmed that the engineering activities would be transferred to the company's engineering centre of excellence in Bangalore.
First Minister Arlene Foster expressed her sympathy for the workers and their families, and said the Executive will "look to see what we can do to help".
"This is a global restructuring, Caterpillar have always been a very good company to work with. We'll continue to work with Caterpillar," she said.
"As I understand it, it is a relocation of some business to other parts of the world, I regret that. There is a need for us to engage and see what we can do to help."
George Brash, a representative at trade union Unite, said some people had spent 30 years with the firm. "They are absolutely devastated that in the midst of a pandemic we are looking at jobs lost in the mouth of Christmas."
The company said the jobs affected will be among production, support and management staff in its electric power division operations.
It is the latest haemorrhaging of employment from Co Antrim, which has lost around 3,000 jobs since 2012 following the collapse of construction firm Patton, and the withdrawal of major overseas firms like tobacco giant JTI Gallaher's and tyre company Michelin.
Last year, the administration of Wrightbus resulted in 1,200 job losses - although around 600 posts have been brought back by the Ballymena company's new owners.
Stephen Kelly, chief executive of Manufacturing NI, said it was "a bitter blow for the workforce and the wider supply chain but brings into stark focus the need to accelerate the pace to arriving at a refreshed, contemporary manufacturing strategy which focuses on increasing our productivity and competitiveness".
"If we make this a great place to build a local manufacturing business that will help attract investment from global manufacturers and others. This begins with increasing our productivity, driving down costs of doing business and creating more opportunities to win work at home and abroad.
Commentator Paul Gosling said the news demonstrated the challenges facing our economy - which is more dependent on manufacturing than the Republic or even England.
"We need to focus on skills, productivity, costs and innovation. We need to get on as quickly as possible with improving our infrastructure as means of raising productivity, as well as creating jobs by investing for the future," he said.
That includes faster roll-out of digital infrastructure improvement, electricity grid strengthening and also in the water infrastructure, to enable construction of the next generation of factories."