13 January 2000 Edition

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Disastrous week for clothing workers

Serious trouble for border counties

This is a disastrous one for the textile industry across Ireland. Lamont Textiles gave 90-day redundancy notices to 265 workers at carpets and yarns factories in Newtownards, Ballygowan and Killinchy. At Coleraine's Savile Row company, 80 of the 147 workers are threatened with being laid off. Desmonds, exclusive supplier to Marks and Spensers for 40 years, was forced to close its Magherafelt factory at the end of last year with the loss of 90 jobs, and laid off 40 workers at its other plants in Derry and Dungiven. Marks and Spensers has ended its supply contract with the Bairds clothing company, which has factories in Bangor and Newtownards. Hawkesbay, a jeans manufacturer, is closing its factory in Ardee, County Louth, with the loss of 300 jobs and is making 160 workers redundant at its other two plants in Derry and Newtownards. To round off this last week, Barbour Threads in Longford, owned by the English company Coats Viyella, announced they were closing with the loss of 103 jobs. And looming in the background is the threat to 1,900 workers at Fruit of the Loom in Donegal who, since September, have been on a three-day week.

Notice anything? Almost all the plants are in border counties. It's one of the worst paid industries, with the poorest conditions. There is no more obvious case of an opportunity for cross-border co-operation by the recently appointed implementation body.

An Phoblacht's ROISIN DE ROSA reports on what closure means for just one of these factories - the Hawkesbay plant at Ardee.

All is not quite as it seems in Hawkesbay Sportswear (Ireland) Ltd, a subsidiary of the Bahamas-based Hawkesbay Sportwear Inc, the company which celebrated the arrival of the millennium with the despatch of 300 people from their jobs in Ardee, County Louth.

``On Wednesday morning last week, just after the New Year break, Hawkesbay owner Hakim Valliani met up with management and told them that the factory had to close,'' said one of the workers. ``But they were told not to breathe a word until the end of the shift, because it was thought that the announcement might disturb the day's work

``But the managers couldn't keep the news quiet. I think they felt it wasn't right on us.'' The news went round the shop floor, where the 300 women were crouched over machines, racing against time to complete their quotas.

But the news was out, and Hakim Valliani addressed the workers at the end of the morning. He told them that he had lost the order for Lee jeans upon which the factory was dependent and all jobs were finished by the end of the month.

``He went on about costs, prices and orders,'' the worker said. ``Nobody listened. We were all too shocked.'' It was a bombshell. People were gobsmacked. Many were in tears. No one worked that afternoon. We just couldn't do it. Our world had blown apart.''

Hakim Valliani bought the Ardee factory from the Vanity Fair Corporation, along with another one in Derry and one in Newtownards, for a song at £4.5 million two years ago. The Ardee plant came with a two-year contract to supply Vanity Fair, manufacturers of Lee and Wrangler jeans, two million pairs of jeans per annum for two years.

``The likelihood all along was that the contract would run out. It did. But Valliani had not succeeded in securing other orders. Without the VF contract, the Ardee plant is closing,'' says Jim Gavin, Sinn Féin member of Ardee Town Commission.

Drogheda-based SIPTU official Jane Bouchell is now fighting for a decent redundancy package for the 300 Ardee workers.

George Hunter, SIPTU's Regional Officer for the area, is quoted as saying last week: ``This came as a bolt out of the blue to us. I've written to the Tánaiste seeking an urgent meeting.''

But it didn't come as a surprise to us, says, Jim Gavin, or to his party colleague and Louth County Councillor, Arthur Morgan, who both wrote to the company back in October asking what was happening in the company that it was bringing in workers from abroad. ``Something didn't look right at the time,'' says Jimmy, who knows many of the people who work at the factory. ``We thought there was something wrong then. Was Valliani really looking for alternative orders to reduce the dependence on VF or was he always looking to move to where labour was a lot cheaper? Workers in the factory believe that is his agenda.''

Factory life

There was a lot wrong in the plant. The workforce, mostly women, is paid piece work. ``Basic pay, reached for achieving your quota, was £160 per week. A Time and Study group came in to set the quotas. They stood over us with stop watches to time each operation. The women work as teams, where each stage of sewing up the jeans is broken down separately into some 15 operations.''

``The pain on your fingers is severe, specially when the denim had too much bleach. It burns your fingers. One after another, sewing the same little thing, hour in, hour out. It was very hard. The quotas have kept going up in the last few years.''

``A half an hour lunch break. You had to sign a paper if you stopped at all or went for a smoke break. If a machine broke down, through no fault of your own, you got `machine fault time', which meant you were only paid half time. No wonder Valliani couldn't get workers. He brought in a lot of young girls who were only trainees, who got paid much less.''

But last month, Valliani brought in 20 workers, all men, from Dubai. It was claimed in the media that he couldn't get staff here. The women, though, are convinced that in fact these men were brought in to train on the machines, to take the new work back to third world countries where wages might be £50 a month or less.

Town devastated

Louth County Councillor Arthur Morgan, speaks with real anger about what the closure will do to the town. ``Yes, there will be jobs, but they won't be in Ardee. It will mean travel, for those can afford it, to Xerox in Dundalk, or to Motorola in Dublin. There is even a food company from Carrickmacross coming into the plant this week to recruit workers. But the workers will leave and move to nearer their employment. It will destroy the town.

``What makes the closure all the worse is the manner in which it was announced - just after the Christmas, when workers, assuming a secure job, had taken on debts which now they find hard to meet. A lot of families are facing severe hardship.''

Sinn Féin has put down a motion to the Town Commissioners meeting on Thursday, 13 January, calling on the financial institutions in the town to be considerate in repayment demands on loans and mortgages that workers would have taken out on the strength of their Hawkesbay employment.''

Saya Arthur Morgan: ``The government has been negligent in ignoring what we saw months back, that jobs in the textile industry are by no means secure. The writing was on the wall long ago. What is Mary Harney going to do about it now?

``Some of the women in this factory have worked here for 15 or even 20 years, at the hardest and most boring of jobs, on extremely low pay. They didn't need to be treated so badly. It makes me very angry that the government did nothing to control this Mr Valliani and his Bahamas-based company.''

An Phoblacht
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