Belfast Telegraph

£100m cost of 16-day Christmas shutdown in Northern Ireland sparks call for change

Roger Pollen, FSB NI
Roger Pollen, FSB NI
Joseph Doherty of Re-Gen Waste
Stephen Kelly of Manufacturing NI
Margaret Canning

By Margaret Canning

Some workers will enjoy a bumper 16 days off this Christmas, with the festive shutdown expected to cost the Northern Ireland economy £100m.

With Christmas Day falling on Wednesday, many firms shut up shop last Friday for the festive period - instead of closing for the weekend and reopening for just one or two days this week.

Economist John Simpson has said the extended break is a waste. He believes it would be better to scrap the second bank holiday on New Year's Day and instead move it to the summer.

However, other economists such as Esmond Birnie and Andrew Webb said the feelgood benefits of extended time off are more important.

Out of 782,670 people in employment in Northern Ireland, it is estimated that 400,000 are in companies or organisations which shut for an extended time over Christmas. And a large number are expected to pull down their shutters from last Friday until Monday January 6.

Mr Simpson estimated that the Christmas closures cost the economy around £100m a year.

Workers at Northern Ireland's biggest manufacturer, Bombardier in Belfast, left work at lunchtime on Friday and are not back until January 2.

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Stephen Kelly, the chief executive of trade group Manufacturing NI, said a straw poll of his members found around half were taking the full period off.

He said: "Everyone in an industry that's not time or shelf-sensitive - such as engineering firms - are finished on Friday and are off all next week.

"Some are back on January 2 and some are back on January 6. But food manufacturers are the opposite. They are taking Christmas Day and back on the evening of Boxing Day."

He believes the full stoppage is worth it, otherwise people would be in for a two-day week starting today, and for another two days on January 2 and January 3.

He also agrees with the timing of two bank holidays over the Christmas period - December 25 and January 1.

Roger Pollen, Federation of Small Businesses NI head of external affairs, said: "The approach to Christmas varies among small businesses. For those in the hospitality sector it is among their busiest times of the year, so they will be trading most days over the Christmas and New Year period.

"In other sectors less affected by enhanced demand, many firms do close for Christmas and won't open until January, however, with an increasing desire for flexibility around annual leave, many businesses enable staff to work and use their holidays at other times of the year if they so wish."

For many workplaces, from pubs to hospitals, an extended break is not possible.

In Newry, waste and recycling firm Re-Gen Waste relies on people working over Christmas to process all the extra discarded toy packaging, wrapping paper and food scraps.

Managing director Joseph Doherty said: "Christmas is our peak recycling period. We have over 200 staff working throughout the festive season in a two-shift pattern. Re-Gen Waste sorts a colossal amount of waste packaging and boxes that are produced due to online shopping, not to mention the tin foil, glass, wrapping paper and unwanted gifts and gadgets that are chucked in the bin."

Workers in hospitality are also busy as Christmas is their peak time of year.

Neil Moore, a bar worker who also represents the trade for the Unite union, said workers are lumbered with having to put in the hours. He added: "What you find with the prevalence of zero hour contracts, or working as and when required, you have to work all the hours in December you can because in January people are back to work, have spent all their money, there's no hours out there for workers and the trade really suffers."

He is not in favour of cutting back on time off, adding: "People need a break."

But Mr Simpson says that the bank holiday for New Year's Day would be better placed in the summer.

"I would certainly prefer that break in our working lives in the middle of summer rather than middle of winter," he said. "A week off for Christmas is more than long enough, or even two days."

Dr Esmond Birnie, a senior economist at Ulster University, said: "You've got to allow for the fact that people do put a positive value on having a holiday."

He said any wasted opportunity in the economy came not from long holidays but not being productive enough when in work.

"Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) data would imply that people on average work longer hours in Northern Ireland/the UK compared to Germany but the Germans can afford to do that because on average in each hour worked they produce 60% more than their counterpart here in Northern Ireland," he said.

"The critical weakness of the Northern Ireland economy is not that we are slacking off by having too many holidays, it is that we are not productive enough when we are working."

A Department of Finance spokesperson said the NI Civil Service does not shut down over the Christmas period. They said: "Although staff have statutory leave entitlement, including the Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year's Day public holidays, departments have arrangements in place to ensure the continuation of essential services."

Belfast Telegraph