Sinn Féin MEP Martina Anderson has rejected as “irresponsible” claims by the North’s Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster linking the closure of Gallaher’s tobacco factory in Ballymena to an EU directive geared to prevent children from smoking.
Almost 900 workers at the Lisnafillan site have been told the factory, bought by Japanese firm JTI in 2007, would begin shutting down in 2016.
The company, which has been in business in Northern Ireland for over 150 years, makes cigarettes for a number of global brands, including Silk Cut and Benson & Hedges.
The company has blamed “challenging economic environment,” tougher tobacco advertising and increases in tax for the closure of the factory as well as another in Wervik, Belgium.
Production at both sites is to be moved to factories in Poland and Romania.
However, Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster said the introduction of an EU tobacco products directive had impacted on the plant.
In February, MEPs – including Ms Anderson – voted by 514 in favour to 66 against, with 58 abstentions, to approve the new anti-smoking legislation.
Ms Foster criticised the Sinn Féin representative for supporting the directive.
“Others were prepared to be champions of this EU directive. Martina Anderson felt it was the right thing to do, but wasn’t prepared to join the dots and to make the association that if she followed through on that support that it would cost jobs.”
However, Ms Anderson hit back claiming the reason for the closure was to increase the company’s profit margins by moving to a country with lower wages.
She said: “Obviously this is devastating news for the workers involved and their families and my thoughts are with them.
“However, We need to be very clear about the reasons for the relocation of JTI at the cost of 900 jobs.
“The EU tobacco directive does not take effect until 2016. JTI have also stated they are locating to other EU member states. These, too, will be equally affected by the directive.
“The reason for JTI Gallaher’s closing their plant in Ballymena is to increase its profit margins and save money on labour costs by moving to a country with lower wages.
“It is irresponsible for elected representatives to provide cover for JTI or seek to score inaccurate political points on the back of job losses.
“We should be standing together as elected representatives in order to provide those who have lost their jobs with a focused retraining and reskilling package.
“Our focus should be asking very clearly as to why the British Government has never applied to the European Union’s Globalisation fund for workers in the north of Ireland, which is designed to help those who have been made redundant.”