Coronavirus: Manufacturing sector enters hibernation

By John Campbell
BBC News NI economics & business editor

  • Published
BombardierImage source, Liam McBurney
Image caption,
Bombardier is suspending production at its aerospace plants until 20 April

Significant parts of Northern Ireland's manufacturing sector are entering a type of hibernation.

Bombardier is suspending production at its aerospace plants until 20 April. In Ballymena, Wrightbus is also closing until 20 April.

Smaller firms are also starting temporary shutdowns in response to the coronavirus crisis.

McAuley Engineering in Ballymoney will have temporarily laid off most of its staff by the end of the week.

All three of these firms intend to use the government's job retention scheme.

That means the government will pay 80% of the salary of each affected worker up to £2,500 a month.

This will initially be in place for three months, covering March, April and May.

Overtime payments?

However the money will not begin to flow until the end of April, which is causing some nervousness, particularly among smaller companies.

Until the scheme is up and running wages, which are sometimes paid weekly, continue to be funded by companies which have seen revenues collapse.

Businesses are trusting the government will deliver but would like more details as soon as possible.

Employees also have unanswered questions about what will be covered - for example will regular overtime payments be accounted for or just base salary?

Other questions are being asked by employees at firms which are not using the temporary lay-off scheme.

The big one being: 'Why are we still at work?'

The BBC has been contacted by workers at a range of manufacturing companies who believe their workplace cannot reasonably be considered as an essential service.

Image source, Gwengoat
Image caption,
The unions are calling for clearer guidance about what manufacturing is considered to be essential

In at least one instance at a Belfast factory, staff temporarily walked out over what they felt was an unsafe working environment.

Those sorts of concerns have been echoed by the Unite trade union.

Susan Fitzgerald, from the union, said: "It is beyond belief that workers are expected to come in and stand in close proximity in their hundreds - whether in aerospace or other non-essential manufacturing - at this time.

"It is simply not possible to keep these workers safe against the rising threat of coronavirus."

'Creating conflict'

She says there should be clearer guidance from government about what manufacturing is considered to be essential.

That demand for more government guidance is also coming from the employer's side.

Stephen Kelly, from Manufacturing NI, said the lack of clear guidance was "creating conflict".

He says "very many parts of manufacturing are absolutely critical to ensuring the existence of normal life".

Food and pharmaceutical manufacturing are obvious examples but Mr Kelly also gives the example of a firm making electrical switchgear which is used by hospitals and supermarkets.

His advice is for companies to carefully assess their supply chain and ask themselves if they are directly or indirectly involved in supporting critical parts of the economy and government policy.

"If the answer to that is 'no' then our understanding is that government expects them to be closed," he added.