A former Wrightbus employee says ex-colleagues are planning to picket the church associated with the business in protest at how they feel they have been treated.
Wrightbus in Ballymena is facing questions over £15m given to the church after it went into administration this week.
The Green Pastures charity, led by Wrightbus’s majority shareholder Pastor Jeff Wright, was given the money over six years, helping it develop a huge church and village complex in Ballymena.
But one former Wrightbus employee, ‘Jim’, says there is deep anger.
“Since 2014 Wrightbus said there was not enough money for any pay rise for staff, but all the time it was making hundreds of thousands,” he said.
“That is where the ill will is coming from. Many of us are planning to picket Green Pastures Church on Sunday.”
In 2017/2018 Wrightbus donated £4.2m to the church which he claimed “put the company into the red”.
He also raised the issue of Advance Engineering (AE) which he believed was part of the Wrightbus Group, set up to support the Green Pastures Church.
It makes small parts for buses, he said, and claimed it charged Wrightbus prices double the market rate in order to profit the church.
He also claimed that Mr Wright had “flown off to America on Tuesday”.
Jim believes Mr Wright had pressed potential buyers to pay £1.5m rent per year for the factory site’s land, thus causing the sale of the company to fall through.
However, a source close to the family said many of Jim’s claims were wrong. Advance Engineering was an independent social economy business which reinvested money into Wrightbus and gave some money to church activities “but not just Green Pastures” he said. He “categorically” denied it charged inflated prices to Wrightbus.
And he rejected claims the £4.2m donation to the church in 2017/2018 put the company into the red, saying it was making a clear profit at the time.
Pastor Jeff Wright is not in America but is home in Ballymena, he added. And the discussion with a potential buyer was over the purchase of land on which the factories were based – not rental. “But no formal offer materialised and a meeting was arranged with that buyer and they didn’t turn up.”
The source was unable to comment on claims workers had no pay rise since 2014.
A Wright family spokesman also defended its decisions and commitment to protecting jobs.
“The Wright family invested in excess of £20 million in 2018 and 2019 in attempts to protect both jobs and the engineering infrastructure at Wrightbus in Ballymena,” he said.
“Work was moved from Malaysia to Ballymena to protect employment here. Just this week, this included paying the wages of all shop floor employees for the last fortnight, at a cost of nearly £600,000.
“The family have always placed giving to and supporting Christian work at the centre of what we do and that has included contributions to various church organisations, all of which have been entirely legal and were approved by directors, the bank and Invest NI.”
Sinn Fein MLA Conor Murphy has said that questions have been raised about the donations to the church activities.
“I note there are questions that have been raised about the finances of the firm and where they were spent and I think all these things need to come out in the wash,” he told the BBC.
But DUP MP Ian Paisley said that how directors spend their dividends is a private issue.