'Betrayal on the buses' as Wrightbus lays off 95 staff
NEARLY 100 jobs are to go at Ballymena firm Wrightbus, which the company is blaming on a downturn in orders but which unions claim is "an inexcusable betrayal".
The firm - whose co-founder William Wright was a vocal supporter of Brexit in the 2016 referendum and who was knighted by the queen in the recent new year honours list - confirmed it has placed 95 workers on their notice.
And while management says that should bring it in line to compete with its rivals in the sector, it was unable to give assurances that the jobs of the other 600 of the company's bus-builders (from an overall staff of 1,700) are ultimately safe.
The redundancies come as another devastating blow to a town which has seen its manufacturing base decimated in recent years with the closures of Michelin and Gallaher's, bringing a tsunami of job losses.
It also means more that 500 manufacturing jobs have been lost in just a week in the north, adding to the shut-downs of Williams Industrial Services (145 people) and oil firm Schlumberger (200 people), while NIE Networks is laying off 90 workers.
“This news came out of the blue to members, who had been informed a number of days ago that there were likely to be line changes due a shortage in parts but we didn't expect any job losses," the Unite union's regional officer George Brash said.
"We hope it's not the start of something at Wrightbus, which one of the last major remaining employers in the area after a spate of site closures over the past two years."
He said the job losses are the result of the loss of sales to Transport for London in addition to the protracted delay in new orders coming in from Translink.
"The fact that the contract for the purchase of London Transport buses has been transferred to China and Egypt is an inexcusable betrayal of Northern Ireland workers and represents a false economy to the UK taxpayer overall."
Brash said Unite was also concerned by reports that the delay in sales under the Translink contract may be due to the absence of an accountable minister.
"Wrightbus has a five-year contract to supply Translink, but unfortunately authorisation for the new environmentally-friendly hybrid buses has not been forthcoming because it apparently needs ministerial sign-off. So Wrightbus are paying the price for the continued impasse and the failure of our politicians."
Rumours of redundancies emerged last week amid fears Wrightbus - which has been offered more than £3.2 million of Invest NI support in the last five years - might have to pause two of its main production lines because of a shortage of axles,
But the signs were evident as far back as last October, when the company's results for the previous year showed a 4 per cent fall in turnover to £264 million and a 9 per cent drop in profits to £10.7m.
At that time Wright Group chairman Mark Nodder pointed to a slowdown in orders from some English and Welsh cities but insisted orders for its famous London bus - as championed by Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson in his old job as the city's mayor - were in line with passenger growth.
Yesterday Mr Nodder said:“Wrightbus, along with the rest of the industry, is facing some very difficult conditions in its domestic market at present, with current order intake for new vehicles at relatively low levels.
"In order that the business remains competitive in the long term, it is vital we promptly take appropriate steps to align our production capacity to projected demand in the foreseeable future.
“We have continued to invest in our product range so that it remains best in class in terms of fuel efficiency and environmental performance. The company will therefore be well positioned when market conditions improve.
“We have not come to this decision lightly and it is done with a heavy heart. But we operate in dynamic marketplace with competition from around the globe and we must respond and react accordingly.”
Wrightbus was founded in 1946 by William Wright with his late father, and has transformed from a small family business into one of the north's largest employers, manufacturing a range of technologically innovative vehicles that are in service across the globe.
But Dr Wright (90) was one of the few businesspeople who came out on the side of Brexit, mirroring the view of the DUP, of which he has been a staunch supporter (he signed the 2015 general election nomination papers for the successful North Antrim candidate Ian Paisley).