WITH the move towards a “smart economy” all the rage in recent years, often what made Ireland grow from the 1960s onwards has been forgotten.
Today so-called “clean industries,” frequently in the services sector like call centres and sales and marketing, are promoted as the way of the future but for many areas, they’re never going to shorten the unemployment queues to any great extent.
It’s too easy to airbrush from history the contribution made by the sector that’s now sometimes referred to as “heavy industry” with all but a sneer.
Waterford is a classic example. The last couple of years have seen hundreds of jobs disappearing in sectors not considered “traditional” employers — the classic example being TalkTalk when 575 employees woke up one morning oblivious to the fact that, within hours, they would be told their jobs were gone, lost to higher profits and lower wages in eastern Europe and South America.
But for well over a decade, the more conventional jobs, which relied on craftsmanship as well as assembly lines, have been falling at a steady rate throughout Co Waterford.
Even the Government’s own committee, set up to review local government in Waterford and which reported back to Environment Minister Phil Hogan in March, conceded that the area was “severely lagging behind” other gateway parts of the country in terms of acting as a driver for regional economic development.
“There is a need for IDA Ireland, working with local government, to provide a more coherent offering to potential investors and enhance its role in the region,” that committee said.
As a port city, Waterford could boast for decades, if not centuries, of a thriving manufacturing-based economy well served by a busy dock which used the river Suir and the maritime opportunities of the south-east coast to import and export its raw materials and finished products.
Waterford Crystal was the giant of all industries where a few decades ago, the guts of 4,000 people drew a wage packet.
That peak couldn’t last, of course, and the business declined in more recent times to the point when, in 2005, it closed its Dungarvan plant with the result that 500 people lost their jobs and then, infamously, in Jan 2009 the Waterford City headquarters shut its doors and those hundreds of employees still left were let go and forced to fight for their pensions.
Former mayor of Waterford and now an independent TD, John Halligan, says that, back in the days of economic development, some multinational companies took advantage of tax reliefs offered by the government but, as soon as those reliefs expired, up sticks and left for other climes.
“You would have had a vibrant, industrial city back then,” he recalls, referring to “the glass” and “the foundry” and other once-bustling employers, many located in the industrial estate on the Cork Rd which was generally near capacity until relatively recently.
“But the city has taken huge hits down through the years,” Mr Halligan says, laying the blame at official doors. “This is not just a rant from the independent TD who’s in opposition, but there’s no job creation in Waterford at the moment. None. We’ve been very badly served by successive governments and very badly served by people who are there to create.”
The infrastructure is there, he says, as is an educated and motivated workforce, a nearby airport, and a population base. “Surely those organisations who are well paid to do the job should be taking all this into account?”
Much more recent examples of job losses include engineering firm Kel-Tech who shed 55 jobs last October as a result of its largest client scaling back on its activities. Other setbacks include the closure of the local Guhring tool-making plant, with 38 employees being made redundant.
The list of examples makes for uncomfortable reading: Sanofi Aventis, the French pharmaceutical company which closed its Waterford base in 2007 with the loss of 200 jobs; Honeywell Turbo which shed 29 jobs in 2011; Ellicksons where 40 people lost their jobs in 2011; Nypro which was once scheduled to employ 400 people in Waterford but instead lost them gradually in the last few years; others include Douglas Engineering; GSK in Dungarvan where 130 people lost their jobs last year; Bausch and Lomb with over 300 jobs losses; Teva Waterford, 315 jobs; and the DFDS Container Line at Waterford Port.
Not forgetting the agri-food manufacturing sector, with one of the most stark reminders of the changes taking place in this industry being the former cheese-making plant in Kilmeaden — once home to the “fillet of cheddar” — which is now an empty, grim throwback to days long gone.
Such developments have been all too common.
It’s not all bad, as Waterford Chamber are keen to stress. Their manufacturing division chair, Laurent Borla of the Nutri-Pharma company, agrees that there’s been a decline in employment but says there’s much to be positive about. “From an industry point of view, there’s a lot of interesting things going on in Waterford.”
He points out that, while labour-intensive industries have receded, capital-intensive business hasn’t and they also have to compete with companies in places like China where manufacturing is cheaper. “Granted, Waterford has been hit harder than most but there are some fantastic companies that people are aware of and some others that people are not aware of.”
The best thing the Government can do for employment is not make it any more difficult for companies to get established and thrive, according to Mr Borla.
The stark figures of an unemployment rate of 18.9% across the South-East, compared to a national average of 14.8%, are hard to argue with when it comes to putting a case forward that Waterford and its hinterland has been left behind.
But behind the those figures are the real cases of the people left on the dole, struggling to pay their bills, facing the repossession of their homes, wondering how they’ll educate their children, and what the future will bring to a county that can only take so many knocks.
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