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More Northern Ireland companies facing the same fate as Gallaher's


Outside the factory gate of the Gallaher's factory

Outside the factory gate of the Gallaher's factory

Outside the factory gate of the Gallaher's factory

The loss of almost 900 jobs at a tobacco factory should be a wake-up call to the Executive that Northern Ireland's manufacturing base needs to be protected, it has been claimed.

Staff were told this week that the JTI Gallaher factory in Ballymena was to shut permanently by 2017 – with the loss of 877 jobs.

Manufacturing NI said that proportionally the job losses at the Ballymena factory were the equivalent to Belfast losing 7,900 positions.

Factories in Northern Ireland are facing competitive disadvantages such as energy costs which are the second highest in Europe, according to the lobby group.

Stephen Kelly, CEO of Manufacturing NI, said: "This potential closure should be an urgent call to action for our Executive and regulators to create a cost-competitive environment which would see companies invest in manufacturing processes, thus safeguarding jobs for the long term. Commit to that now and these jobs may be saved."

Belfast has enjoyed a series of job boosts in the IT sector recently but concerns have risen about the manufacturing base outside the city.

In the most recent unemployment figures covering the second quarter of this year, 140 jobs were lost in manufacturing in Northern Ireland.

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Mr Kelly has warned about the growing costs manufacturing firms are facing, in particular energy costs, from doing business in Northern Ireland.

He said: "We have been warning for some time about the spiralling cost of doing business here, particularly in energy where, according to our Utilities Regulator, most manufacturers endure the second most expensive electricity in Europe."

The manufacturing sector has been hit hard in the last decade, and only last month Bombardier announced it was cutting almost 400 jobs at its Belfast base. In 2012, 760 jobs were axed by Caterpillar, owner of engineering firm FG Wilson.

A worker at the Gallaher Ballymena factory has accused politicians of failing to listen to job loss warnings.

Rodney Stewart, a senior shop steward and representative of Unite union, said his colleagues were devastated.

"We were not scaremongering, now it has come to reality," he said. "Jobs losses are on their way, sadly some of the politicians did not listen."

Gallaher's has manufactured tobacco in Northern Ireland for more than 150 years.

It contributed an estimated £60m in wages to the economy.

Enterprise minister Arlene Foster has said the introduction of the EU Tobacco Products Directive affected the plant because of changes to the size of roll-your-own tobacco packs.

In February, MEPs voted to approve the new anti-smoking legislation, leaving management at the Ballymena site facing major technology and operational adjustments.

Instead, the company proposed moving its plant and another in Belgium to Poland and Romania where costs are lower.

Staff in Ballymena have been given time off to cope with the stress of the announcement.

Mr Stewart met ministers at Stormont – who had gathered to discuss the budget impasse – to emphasise the impact on the workers.

He said: "I was heartened by what I heard today, it also gave me the opportunity to say on behalf of the workforce what their feelings were to the Executive."

He said he had been talking to politicians for years about the impact of the directive on packaging size and claimed some had let them down.

Mrs Foster and Employment Minister Stephen Farry, who flew from California to take part in the special Executive meeting, will take the lead on dealing with job losses across Northern Ireland.

They are expected to visit the Gallaher's site early next week.

Mrs Foster said: "We have heard of the very human side of this story, it is now up to us to provide some answers in relation to what we intend to do over the next couple of weeks and months.

"We do have time, time is on our side.

"I suppose other companies have left us in a much shorter time frame with large-scale losses so we do have time to look at solutions and we will do just that."