The human tragedies behind "rationalisation"


ON Thursday next, a stark reality will dawn for Tipperary town. That's when the Tambrands factory - one of the mainstay employers in the town - will close its gates after almost 20 years.

The news bulletins will carry the story, the newspapers will do likewise, and then, in all probability, the 220 Tambrands workers will be forgotten. But when the factory gates have closed, a real human tragedy will begin to unfold. This story is about mortgages, school books, holidays, food and the daily round. It's about people trying to figure out how they are going to make ends meet in the wake of a most unexpected closure - and one that seems to have been announced in a fairly brutal fashion.

In American corporate parlance, the closure is an exercise in "down sizing". In Tipperary parlance, it is something else entirely - no more and no less than the death of part of a small town.

On September 18th last, Ms Mary Oakes, the SIPTU branch secretary in Tipperary, was at a meeting in Mallow when she received a telephone call telling her of the closure. That was the first she heard about it. On the same day, management at the plant called in the workers and told them of the "down sizing" decision, based on lack of demand for the tampon products made by Tambrands. Of the company's nine plants there were to be four closures - one in America, one in Russia, another in France and, of course, Tipperary. Ms Oakes and her team of negotiators met management in a desperate bid to avert the closure. There was no way back, they were told. She tried to get an extension of the closure date, but without success.

On the Friday before the closure announcement, overtime at the plant was withdrawn and all temporary staff were told that they no longer had jobs. That was a straw in the wind, but nobody anticipated what was to come. "It's a pure disaster - there is such a vast human side to this. In a town with a population of less than 5,000 people, the loss of 220 industrial jobs is incalculable. It would be like Dublin losing thousands of jobs. We had damn all indication and never expected it, because the workforce out performed all other factories in the group and the cost base for the Tipperary operation was the lowest of all," Ms Oakes said.

So, next Thursday, people like Mr Brendan Foran (41), a father of two, will face into Christmas and the future without any certainty. Twice before, once as a coach painter in Dublin, and again at the Atari computer factory in Tipperary, he was made redundant. His council mortgage is £22,000 and he and his partner have been servicing the loan for the past two years. Both of them were employed at Tambrands, and after tax, they were taking home more than £300 weekly. When he, starts signing on, Mr loran will get about £129 a week. "I have spoken to the council about the mortgage but they won't make any decision until they see what redundancy settlement I get. There's nothing here for me. I may have to go to Thurles, Clonmel or Limerick to find something. I expect to get about £13,000 in the pay off but that's hardly a windfall," Mr Foran said.

Mr Stephen O'Donnell (29), married with three children, worked at Tambrands for the past six years. He said that when management made the closure announcement last month, people burst into tears. "It was a very emotional scene. The workers couldn't take it in," he added. Mr O'Donnell's mortgage is £18,000 and he is £7,000 in debt to the credit union. He grossed £274 a week at the plant, but his weekly benefit cheque will be no more than £139. He has been told by the council he will have to wait until after the closure before they decide what to do about the mortgage.

Mr Hugh Wade (52) is somewhat more fortunate. Single, with 17 years of service, he completed his mortgage repayments last year.

He will come out with a £25,000 redundancy package. Nevertheless, like the others he experienced a short, sharp shock when he heard the news. "One minute you had a job - the next minute it was gone. But I suppose you can't roll over and die because of something like this. In my case, I'm not too badly off but I'll have to take a course in something new. If they can't find something to replace Tambrands it will mean driving fairly long distances to a new job. There's nothing here," he added.

Mr Sean Murphy, a supervisor in the fibres section of the plant, is one of the few whose service started when Tambrands opened. He will receive £40,000 and his mortgage repayments are only £18.50 a week. He doesn't feel too badly done by. "My father died this year - that's what I call trouble. I've got something else lined up, although I won't be getting the same money. I suppose I'm one of the lucky ones. The question I want to ask, though is where will the media and the politicians be after next Thursday. In six months' time I wonder if we'll be hearing from them," Mr Murphy said.

On Thursday, the bulk of the Tambrands workers will go, leaving a skeleton staff of 30 to oversee the wind down of the plant.

For Henry Holmes (25) and his girlfriend, Sheila Fitzgerald (28), the closure is a particularly bad blow. Last June, they took out a £50,000 mortgage on a new home at Galbally Road, outside the town.

Both of them work at Tambrands, and as of next Thursday their pay cheques will cease. Their monthly repayment on the mortgage is £400. Now, a frantic job search is on.

Sheila has done a number of interviews. So has Henry, and they are hoping against hope that, something will turn up. But even if they are successful, the probability is that they will be working apart in the Shannon/Limerick area. "We don't intend to give up the house too handy," Henry said. If they can't find work, the couple will have to survive on weekly social security payments of £67 each.

Next Thursday, they will be present when the Tambrands social club is wound up. The money paid in will not be redistributed. Instead, it will be used for a closure party in a number of Tipperary pubs.

A party or a wake? The choice is not hard to make in a town that will lose £50,000 a week because of the closure of one factory.