Belfast Telegraph

Michelin factory workers left face grim choice of dole or leaving Northern Ireland

By Margaret Canning

Nearly 900 workers at Michelin in Ballymena face moving from Northern Ireland or joining the dole queue at home as the company announced it was pulling out of the province.

The French firm blamed a slump in demand for the Ballymena-made truck tyres in Europe, as well as the advent of cheap Asian alternatives, for its decision to close the Ballymena plant with the loss of 860 jobs.

It is instead ploughing £50m into its plant in Dundee - and factory manager John Milsted said it would not be economical to make the investment in Ballymena because its machinery was outdated.

In addition, the company has blamed high energy costs and problematic logistics as factors influencing its decision.

Stephen Kelly, the head of Manufacturing NI, said politicians and his organisation had been warning about the danger of high energy costs. Northern Ireland has some of the highest energy costs in Europe.

Mr Kelly said: "This must be a huge call to action for politicians, policy-makers and regulators to provide a market that can allow large energy users to compete globally, and indeed compete internally, for the much-needed capital to invest in plant.

"It is well beyond time for the NI Executive to commit to a manufacturing strategy for NI. We join the Unite union in calling for urgent action to protect our manufacturing base and create the conditions to allow manufacturers to grow. We will join them in any potential urgent meeting with the DETI Minister."

DUP MLA David McIlveen said the departure of Michelin meant the Co Antrim town was close to losing its reputation as a "powerhouse" of good employers.

Last year tobacco giant JTI announced it would close its Ballymena factory by 2017 with the loss of more than 800 jobs.

And three years ago this month family-run Patton Construction in Ballymena went into administration with the loss of 200 jobs.

Enterprise Minister Jonathan Bell said the announcement was "devastating news for the affected workers, their families and the local community as a whole".

"My thoughts are with them as they struggle to come to terms with the prospect of having to seek employment elsewhere, and with the external contractors who will also be affected by today's announcement," he said.

"The loss of 860 jobs is a huge blow for Ballymena and north Antrim and is bad news for the Northern Ireland economy as a whole. This decision is hugely regrettable and I know the company will not have taken it lightly."

Peter Bunting, assistant general secretary at ICTU, said: "This situation was raised repeatedly by the trade unions with officials and with the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment Jonathan Bell. I raised this threat to jobs at meetings with DUP MLAs over the summer. And 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."

Federation of Small Business NI's Wilfred Mitchell said: "This is another devastating blow to the local economy, particularly in Ballymena, as it follows hot on the heels of the announced closure of the neighbouring JTI Gallaher.

"This announcement makes it all the more vital to address Northern Ireland's high energy costs, which are 10% higher for business customers in Northern Ireland and substantially higher for heavier use businesses, such as in the manufacturing sector."

Employees were dumbstruck after the news was given to them yesterday. "Everything was normal at 9am," one said, as he contemplated the end of his career at Michelin.

But the company said employees would be offered support including "enhanced" redundancy, training and advice. In addition, the firm said "employees prepared to relocate will be offered a job in UK or European plants with relocation support".

Several employees said they may be left with no other option but to move for redeployment.

The firm's enterprise arm, Michelin Development, will also released more than £5m to help start-ups, fund expansion or supply investment to attract new business.

SDLP MLA Patsy McGlone, the chairman of the Assembly's enterprise committee, said the pull-out demonstrated that ministers were "asleep at the wheel".

He said: "The constant crises, the instability and the distraction politics has monopolised the entire political agenda for too long. Where is the strategy for dealing with the fallout from industrial retraction in the north Antrim area? Where is the response to spiralling energy costs and the massive grid infrastructure deficit throughout areas outside Belfast? These issues were raised with the Enterprise Minister and he has not resolved it."

Belfast Telegraph