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Look back at life at the Loom 15.10.09

Special Fruit of the Loom feature compiled by Liam Porter, Simon McGeady and Damian Dowds of the Inishowen Independent.

THERE was a time in the 1990s when Inishowen was the hub of the biggest employment phenomenon ever to have swept through Donegal. Having grown from a small family-owned firm owned by the McCarters, the clothing giant Fruit of the Loom became not just one of Donegal's biggest employers but one of the country’s.
Throughout the 1990s things just appeared to be getting better and better. Not only was the factory in Buncrana going from strength to strength, but the company was expanding its bases right across Donegal and Derry.
Factories sprung up in Malin Head, Raphoe, Milford, Dungloe and in Campsie in Derry and at its height the firm employed over 3,500 people in its six plants.
Then, ten years ago, came the first signs that the days of Fruit of the Loom’s manufacturing base in Donegal were numbered.
Early in 1999 the company announced a series of job losses and 770 workers in Milford, Malin Head and Buncrana lost their jobs and the first of a series of shockwaves swept through the company.
By September of 1999 the 200 workers at the factory in Raphoe had been told that the were to lose their jobs as well and at the same time the company announced that around 2,000 workers at plants in Derry and Donegal were to be placed on a three day week.
A month later a further 190 job losses were announced for Fruit of the Loom in Buncrana and all of a sudden over 1,000 jobs had been shed by the company in the space of a year.
After that, the uncertainty for the future remained with workers at the factories in Buncrana and by 2004 the company had issued a statement outlining its plans to restructure its European manufacturing operations that would result in a process of phasing down its facilities in Ireland over four to five years.
Since then all of the manufacturing has ceased at the Fruit of the Loom factories in Buncrana and the satellite plants in Raphoe, Milford, Dungloe, Templemore, Campsie and Malin Head are long since closed.
But the impact that Fruit of the Loom has made on Inishowen and the North West remains huge.
Many workers who lost their jobs have gone on to a variety of different careers, showing a resilience, determination and confidence to succeed that will remain vital to the local economy in these tough times.
And the area can now boast vital pieces of infrastructure like the Fullerton Pollan Dam, built and developed because of Fruit of the Loom’s presence in Buncrana.
Ten years after the first of the job losses, the Inishowen Independent has spoken to several former Fruit of the Loom workers as they recall their time with the company who at one time was Inishowen and Donegal’s biggest employer. These are their stories…
Annemarie McLaughlin (Machinist and quality controller)
Annemarie McLaughlin from Muff spent almost 11 years working in Fruit of the Loom until she took redundancy in September 1998. She worked in unit number three at the old Ballymacarry plant where she sewed sleeves onto t-shirts for six years before being promoted to a quality control position.
“It was a great place to work, especially in the early days,” she recalled. “There was a great atmosphere on the factory floor, with the staff playing lots of pranks and practical jokes on one another. And on big occasions like Christmastime there was a really good atmosphere about the place. But when we moved to the new site a lot of the carry-on was curtailed and there was a lot more rules and regulations introduced.”
“The money was great,” Annemarie continued. “We were paid a ‘piece work rate’ and worked hard – some people even worked through their lunch breaks – and there was loads of overtime for the first number of years. Fruit of the Loom must have pumped some serious money into Inishowen in wages alone.”
“I really enjoyed the quality control job,” Annemarie said. “But in later years there was a sense that it was too good to last. They kept expanding and building more and more units – and the new factory where Flanagan’s are today really was state of the art –
Annemarie McLaughlin
but people felt that it was only a matter of time before it would come to an end. The canteen they built was absolutely gorgeous, and had the best of everything. But there was a sense by 1998 that it was coming to an end and I took redundancy. I was lucky enough that I had a job in the family shop here in Muff, where I still work today.”
Despite all the camaraderie, staff reunions haven’t yet taken place. “I’m still friendly with several of the girls I worked with, but there are people that I worked with that I haven’t seen since 98, which is hard to believe,” Annemarie said. “It would be great if there was a reunion, but you’d need some size of a hall to host it.”
Mairead Diggin Mairead Diggin (HR Manager)
These days, the Fruit of the Loom bosses are viewed by many as the ‘bad guys’ who pulled the rug from under the feet of their Irish workforce in the chase for fatter profits, but back in the winter of 1986, they were the proverbial knight in shining armour.
“WP McCarter were operating on a very tight margin when I started working there. We were always one wrong turn, one lost order, away from closing down.
There was an explosion in the boiler house in the early eighties and the staff just thought that’s the end. The Fruit of the Loom takeover was a phenomenon that people in Buncrana could not have seen coming. Suddenly to have this massive outpouring of cash,” said Mairead Diggin, who joined the factory as a trainee manager in 1979.
McCarters was already a big operation in the mid-eighties, employing over 450 people, but the American makeover would see that number mushroom and leave Mairead’s in-tray creaking under the weight of job applications.
“At one stage I had 5000 applications for jobs at our factories in Ireland. People from as far away as Cork and Waterford would travel for interviews,
many of whom got jobs and relocated to Donegal. Some settled here and live in the area still.
“We continued to grow up to 1998 when things started to go the other way. Including Derry, there were 4500 employed by Fruit of the Loom in Ireland at the peak.”
As well as hiring, as HR manager Mairead had a myriad of other responsibilities, from dealing with employee complaints, plant security and the co-ordination of visits by potential clients.
“With a company as big as Fruit of the Loom, industrial relations took up a lot of time. I had to deal with insurance claims. And with so many different plants you had to be fair when moving workers around them.”
Mairead remembers the speeches Mr McCarter gave to the assembled staff.
“Willie was always good at encouraging enough people to think of the company as their own, and the workers responded by doing what they had to do to keep the wolves from the door.”
It wasn’t all a heads down race to meet targets for the Fruit of the Loom workers though.
“The company was a great social network for a lot of people. Many of the workers were from rural areas and the time they got to spend with their co-workers is I think what they miss most.”
Mairead was one of the last Fruit of the Loom workers to leave, staying on until 30th of June 2006 when she left for a new job in Letterkenny. She still lives in Buncrana.
Sarah McClenaghan (Trainee Department Manager)
SARAH McClenaghan had worked for McCarter’s for 38 years, but when the American revolution came in the mid 1980s, she embraced the change.
“When Fruit of the Loom were taking over I flew to Louisville in Kentucky to learn the new methods of production that would be used in Ireland. When I was over there someone gave me a stop-watch to time a worker. I had never had a stop-watch before and didn’t know how to work it. We were to have ‘time and study’ managers like they had in America. The transition was hard on the old McCarter’s workers, and some of them took voluntary redundancy at that stage,” said Sarah who travelled to the US headquarters on three separate occasions.
She says it helped that there was some continuity from the old regime.
“It was great that McCarter’s stayed on when FOTL came in. The workers felt safer because they were still there.”
As manager of the trainee department Sarah, from St Columba’s Avenue, had to make sure that the vast numbers of new recruits
Sarah McClenaghan
needed for Fruit of the Loom’s Buncrana operation were brought up to the required standard in double-quick time.
“I was allocated 6 instructors to train who I turn had to teach the new workers. When the trainees came in they had six weeks to get up to speed. There was a special training unit set up for trainees to practice on.”
One of the things that stands out was that young men as well as women were on the stitching machines at the Shore Front, not something you would have seen in shirt factories locally before then.
For a time Fruit of the Loom brought prosperity Buncrana.
“We worked 39 hours a week and finished early on a Friday. On Friday afternoon Buncrana was booming with people shopping.”
Sarah started working for McCarter’s in 1947, aged just 14. She spent 15 years as a machinist before becoming a supervisor. Her brother, Alex, and sister, Mary, also worked for Fruit of the Loom.
Sarah was on the outside looking in a decade ago when the American company began cutting back their workforce here.
“I came out at 60, in 1994. I took early retirement because my husband, Cathal, was in ill-health. It was sad when the job losses started, because I still had a lot of friends who worked there and had a good relationship with the McCarters.
“A lot of the workers left school when they were 15 and had no qualifications, but the Fruit of the Loom workers got a good redundancy. A lot of them got big money and were able to buy their own houses, even the single people. I have a niece in her 30s who was able to do that.
“There was a taskforce to help get them back to work and the Celtic Tiger was starting so most were able to find other jobs. It wouldn’t be so easy if Fruit of the Loom shut down today.”
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