FG Wilson’s announcement this week of up to 260 redundancies by the end of the year was a bolt from the blue for local politicians and trade unionists.
With most of the job losses expected to be at the generator firm’s Larne plant, the town is bracing itself for the knock-on effect on the local economy.
East Antrim MP and Finance Minister Sammy Wilson appeared to be as shocked as anyone at the news of restructuring and the transfer of part of the business to China, revealing he had been told by the company only three weeks ago that, having survived the worst of global recession, production had increased to peak 2008 levels.
Mr Wilson spoke of working with the American Caterpillar Inc subsidiary to explore ways of filling the void, while fellow MLAs urged the Executive to take action to protect jobs.
FG Wilson, which produces diesel and gas generators mainly for export, has plants in Larne, Monkstown and Springvale, Belfast. In making shock twin announcements on Monday, the company said its objective was “keeping the business competitive”.
The firm is to restructure its small-generator-set business to create “a leaner team.” A two-month evaluation of the salaried and management team will “determine what positions may be combined or removed to achieve efficiency improvements and create a more competitive cost structure”.
FG Wilson indicated that the job reductions could begin as early as the fourth quarter 2012. Insiders say that up to 100 posts could be affected, although the company declined to comment on speculation..
Meanwhile, production of 400 Series generator sets is to transfer to Tianjin, China, “in order to build the product closer to its growing customer base”. Approximately 160 agency workers here are likely to lose their jobs in a process to begin later this year.
“These agency worker reductions are expected to take place by the end of 2012,” said a spokesman for FG Wilson, who added: “Resources are in place to assist the work force through this transition.”
Politicians are worried that more local jobs could be transferred abroad, as FG Wilson’s trade with the emerging markets in Asia and the Far East continues to grow.
Ironically, workers at the firm have been hit by a series of lay-offs in recent years as the global downturn reduced demand.
Monday’s news was “a bolt out of the blue”, said a Unite union official, who added: “We have no further information other than that given by the company to the Press, which has come as a bolt out of the blue. Unite the Union shop stewards will now be entering a 90-day consultation period with the company.”
Mr Wilson said: “This is a bad blow. What we have to do now is to look and see what can be done for those who are made unemployed. And secondly, and much more importantly, what work can be done with FG Wilson to try and find other investment projects which can lead to the re-employment of some of those workers.
We have got to look at ways in which we can work with FG Wilson to try and fill the gap which has been created by the moving of the volume production to China.”
East Antrim DUP MLA Alastair Ross urged that Invest NI “must continue to engage with the company to ensure that FG Wilson is able to compete internationally and rebuild after this setback”.
He added: “What is important now is that those impacted by the decision are given all the support they need and I have written to Employment and Learning Minister Stephen Farry to ascertain what support his Department will be offering at this time.”
Sinn Féin MLA Oliver McMullan said FG Wilson is one of a few local firms with a healthy export market, “so this news is totally unexpected”.
“I am calling on FG Wilson to make sure that the people facing redundancy have their full entitlement and that training is put in place to re-skill the work force so that they can access alternative employment,” he added.
“It is important we protect the manufacturing industry and I am calling on the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Development Arlene Foster to move now to protect the remaining jobs at this site.”
Alliance MLA Stewart Dickson said: “This is very sad news that such a large amount of jobs will be lost in Larne. It will also have a knock-on effect on secondary companies in the area who benefited from the large work force at FG Wilson.
“I will be seeking a meeting with the management of FG Wilson about these job losses and the restructuring of their firm which has resulted in them moving production to China.”
Ulster Unionist Assemblyman Roy Beggs Jnr said: “The (DUP) First Minister and the (DUP) Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment were prominent when good news was announced at FG Wilson, and now that help is needed, they should be talking to senior management and making urgent statements on this matter.”
He added: “The news that a production line based at FG Wilson’s Larne factory is being transferred to China with the loss of 160 jobs and the possibility of a loss of a further 100 jobs is deeply concerning. We simply cannot afford to be exporting jobs rather than products to China or anywhere else.
“Throughout the current recession, the continued success of FG Wilson has been a beacon of hope for the local economy. Relatively recently, there have been announcement of major investment in a state-of-the-art assembly line and more staff were hired, albeit on an agency basis.”