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Caterpillar jobs cut another blow to manufacturing sector

The loss of up to 250 jobs at the construction equipment giant Caterpillar represents yet another blow to the beleaguered manufacturing industry in Northern Ireland.

Fears had been growing this week of an announcement by the American-owned manufacturer which employs 1,800 people at its operations in west Belfast, Larne and Monkstown.

News that night shifts had been cancelled at the Springvale factory off the Springfield Road in west Belfast added to that sense of foreboding.

Unfortunately, the signs have not been good for some time. Since 2011 Caterpillar has cut more than 1,000 jobs in the north while in July the firm posted a 16 per cent drop in total sales with the fall in oil prices being blamed for weak demand for its products.

Yesterday the company said it was considering a restructuring of its operations in Northern Ireland which would include the potential closure of the Monkstown plant and lead to between 200 and 250 job losses in production, support and management positions across its sites in the north over a two-year period.

While the cuts are perhaps not as drastic as some had feared, it nevertheless represents a significant proportion of the current workforce.

For all workers there will now be a sense of great uncertainty and anxiety as they wait to hear their fate, a process that is bound to be deeply destabilising.

The prospect of redundancy is extremely difficult for workers who have families, mortgages and bills to pay and who will wonder what the future holds.

Caterpillar must give those staff every support and assistance in seeking employment and hopefully the fact they have skills and experience as a result of working with this major manufacturer will help them secure new positions.

Despite this news, Caterpillar has said it remains committed to Northern Ireland and believes this restructuring will make the firm more efficient and competitive.

We must hope that is the case and this business, which is such an important employer, continues to move forward.

However, there is a wider question for the Stormont executive in terms of economic strategy and the commitment to securing manufacturing jobs.

This sector has been hit by a series of hammer blows in recent months and years.

We have already seen the closure of JTI Gallaher and Michelin in Ballymena with the loss of more than 1,000 jobs while Bombardier's aircraft parts factory in Belfast is facing more than 1,000 redundancies this year and next year.

There is no doubt the drive to bring in quality financial and technology jobs has paid dividends but we also need to see a clear plan to help retain existing manufacturing jobs and attract investment from large-scale employers.

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