One of the most senior members of staff at JTI Gallaher has told of the devastating moment when he learned that the Ballymena plant was to be axed.
Gracehill man Derek Douglas,a production manager, who has been with the firm for 30 years, said when the announcement was made there was just stunned silence.
“Nobody had predicted this and nobody saw it coming,” he said. “For the past few years we have done everything we possibly could to try and protect the future. We always knew it was difficult but we thought that we had done enough, but sadly we hadn’t. There were a lot of people in tears and people hugging each other.”
He acknowledged that workers were wondering what the future holds in the aftermath of the closure.
“There are young people who have just taken out mortgages; young people about to get married and set up home; young people expecting children; and older people still trying to educate their families.
“There are people paying off loans and mortgages just like everyone else in Northern Ireland and they are all wondering now what the future holds for them.”
Mr Douglas said local Gallaher workers had shown their commitment time and time again over the years, embracing new technologies and working practices.
“They were always so willing to retrain and take on new skills and new responsibilities because we knew we were always up against it as regards foreign imports. They have done everything that could have ever been asked of them.
“So on Tuesday it started at 2pm when all the managers were briefed – and that was the first we had heard of it. It was a very well kept secret because there wasn’t the slightest inkling of this.
“We were were then asked to get all our people into the canteen and the vice-president in charge of the factory made the announcement to everybody.
“There was just silence. He asked if there was any questions and no one spoke. Then after four or five minutes the tears started.”
He said that in spite of the difficult circumstances on Tuesday many people were trying to take some positives from the situation.
“It is not the receivers walking in, saying lift your coat and go home,” he said. “Ironically, at the moment we are so busy it is unbelievable.
“Since JTI bought us over we have almost trebled the volume coming out of that factory with just about the same workforce, very few more, due to massive investment.
“In the factory where work £150 million has been spent in the last five years modernising it.”
JTI released a statement on Tuesday announcing its intention to “restructure its manufacturing facilities as a result of significant and sustained changes impacting its global business”.
Mr. Douglas praised Ian Paisley MP for his “exemplary work in meeting with representatives and meetings with various government ministers” in a bid to keep the factory open.
And he maintained that the “death knell” for the factory was the EU tobacco products directive because of changes to the size of tobacco packs.
The new European tobacco products directive due to be introduced in two years’ time will prohibit much of what is produced in Ballymena – given that small tobacco packs will no longer be allowed.
“Like any factory in western Europe, we were up against it because our wage rate is so much higher than Poland or Romania and we have been on a tremendous journey to top levels of efficiency and modernisation - but it wasn’t enough,” he said.