Bus manufacturer Wrightbus has announced a number of redundancies at its factory in Ballymena as it looks to create a "stable and secure future" for the company in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
Chief Executive Buta Atwal said the tough decision has been taken to make up to 35 permanent employees redundant pending consultation, as well as a reduction in agency staff of up to 90 workers over a phased period that will be kept under review. The move, he said, is vital to "secure a stronger future" for the business which is urging politicians to support its drive to produce 3,000 hydrogen buses in the next four years.
DUP MP Ian Paisley said it was disappointing the company had been forced into making redundancies.
"There are obvious fears about the longer-term impact of the COVID-19 outbreak on the wider Northern Ireland economy and that such redundancies will escalate in the future," he said.
"Specifically within bus manufacturing there is action the government can take to assist. If they brought forward the much-needed hydrogen bus strategy for the UK it could be transformative for the wider transport sector."
Sinn Fein MLA Philip McGuigan said: “This will have a major impact on the local economy in Ballymena and North Antrim at a time when many are already under great financial strain as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.”
The 575 staff that remain would be more than a ten-fold increase in the number of employees inherited by the management team when it bought Wrightbus out of administration in October 2019, with hopes to grow the workforce to 1,000 by the end of 2021.
“When we saved Wrightbus from administration last year, there were only about 50 employees, and since then we have grown the workforce to 700,” said Mr Atwal.
“The decision has been taken to trim the workforce to the size we believe we will need to see us through to the end of the year.”
The redundancies are a necessary measure given the economic slowdown as a result of the current coronavirus crisis. However, it has not altered the long-term vision of prosperity for the company.
“Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, while we furloughed a large section of the workforce, we also kept about 100 engineers, designers and sales staff working to make sure we can take future orders of buses and work on long-term projects, which will provide security and stability for Wrightbus in the coming years,” said Mr Atwal.
The Wrightbus factory has created the world’s first hydrogen-electric double decker bus, which emits only water and there is a belief that in the coming years this will see a large number of orders come in.
There are already strong sales for the delivery of buses in London and Aberdeen this year, with more cities due to follow suit.
Mr Atwal said: “We see the future in zero-emission hydrogen and battery-electric transport and have positioned the business accordingly. Our vision is to have 1,000 people working for us by the end of 2021 and we hope to be in a position to re-hire some of those who have been made redundant.
“We believe green fuel is the future and will bring a brighter future to Northern Ireland over the coming years.”
A consultation will begin with staff on Monday, May 25, and Wrightbus said it will be supporting staff throughout the process.
George Brash, regional officer at trade union Unite, said the job losses were “profoundly regrettable” and that the union hoped some workers could be furloughed instead of being let go.
“Every job lost is a heavy blow for the individual concerned, their household, the wider community and economy, especially in the face of the current Covid-19 pandemic,” he said.
“Ahead of this announcement being made, I spoke to senior management to call on them to utilise the Coronavirus Jobs Retention Scheme to protect jobs and retain skilled workers; the prospect of workers being thrown onto the dole queues at this time is unacceptable.
“Management confirmed they will be proceeding to a 30-day consultative period on their proposals but that they will consider furlough as an option. They sought to reassure us of their ambitions for Wrightbus in Ballymena and its centrality to their plans.”