Workers facing up to redundancy in the wake of Michelin’s closure announcement have demanded that politicians and statutory agencies work round the clock to secure new jobs for Ballymena.
And while most recognise the tremendous difficulties in attracting investment to Northern Ireland, they are adamant that no stone should be left unturned in the search for new employment opportunities.
For Michelin veterans who have worked on the site for 30 years plus there is an admission that re-training will, in all likelihood, have a minimal impact on their job prospects. But they are united in their demands that re-training for younger workers should be ‘relevant and meaningful’.
Rodney Quigley, 51, and with 30 years experience at Michelin, says that the £5 million seemingly set aside for retraining of staff needs to be used wisely.
“They need to listen to their workers to hear the skills they need to get new work. I know young men who left other positions to come to Michelin thinking they would get job security and good wages, but that hasn’t worked out for them. I feel for the younger boys in Michelin. In two and a half years time there will be hundreds of people looking for a new job.”
Mr Quigley said most workers of his generation were hoping for “a half decent redundancy package, and maybe a part-time job.”
And, in keeping with most of the workers we talked to, he acknowledged how much the company had contributed to local prosperity over the years.
He added: “I would not have what I do today if it had not been for Michelin. Their terms and conditions were good. They paid well and I had no complaints.
“Michelin made it abundantly clear over the past few years that energy prices were crippling the company, If you are making tyres in another country for a quarter of the expenditure of what is needed in Ballymena, then they will move.”
Peter Parkhill, another employee in his 50s, joined Michelin after years of service in the now defunct ‘Flexibox’ engineering firm in Harryville.
“Michelin, JTI and firms like Flexibox paid good solid wages which enabled people to raise families and have a decent lifestyle,” he said. “The fear now is what the future holds. Very few people can see these kind of job opportunities coming around again.
“This latest blow to the manufacturing industry is going to cause a ripple effect right around this area. It’s time for actions not words from politicians - they need to get the finger out and bring some employment to Ballymena because at the moment this town is dying.”
At the younger end of the employee age scale, 28-year-old Steven Eaton, whose father and uncle also work in the Broughshane factory, said Michelin was much more than a factory to staff.
“All my friends work there. My department was like a big family, even in the middle of the night if there was a problem I would make a call and I would get assistance. We all looked after each other.
The Cullybackey man, a maintenance technician, said the news at the meeting on Tuesday was “devastating” even though for a number of years it had been plain that Michelin in Ballymena was expensive in production terms compared to factories in China and Eastern Europe.
“I knew I wasn’t going to get the rest of my life out of it,” he said. “My father has been there nearly 20 years now and I have an uncle there nearly 30 years. During the meeting when we heard the news there was no uproar, everyone stood in silence. Personally I don’t think it really sunk in with me until I saw it on the TV news.”
He added that Michelin “has been a good company to work for and their wages brought me and my five siblings up. I know the mindset of the workforce and it will keep going and carrying on,” he said. “The work ethic has always been to produce what we can, as best we can at all times.
The work ethic is there, the skills are there, but where to now? And retraining for what?”
He admitted that moving elsewhere would have to be considered: “I know I am in a better position than other boys with young families, because relocating for them would be impossible. I thought about relocating a few years ago, but it is a more serious option now.
“We will have to see what is on offer and it is something to consider.”