Medical giant delivers tough medicine with 785 jobs at risk
IRELAND'S recession-proof pharmaceutical industry was rocked to its core yesterday as 785 highly skilled workers faced redundancy at the flagship firm Pfizer.
Those employees hit by the company's swingeing global cutbacks have a fighting chance of securing new employment within the pharmaceutical sector because of their specialist skills.
But the announcement -- that three factories in Cork and Dun Laoghaire are earmarked for closure and sale, and a fourth, in Newbridge, Co Kildare, will be hit by 275 lay-offs -- was seen as a clear warning sign of troubles ahead for the pharmaceutical sector.
One expert said the Pfizer job losses could be the tip of the iceberg as so-called 'blockbuster' drugs -- the cornerstone of the industry -- face competition from cheaper versions known as generics.
Pharmaceutical sector expert Dr Chris van Egeraat of NUI Maynooth said the industry would continue to lose jobs as patents on these drugs run out and copies were made in cheaper locations.
He said while plants may not close, the number of people needed in these plants would be lower. "So rather than plant closures we will experience downsizing," he said.
Last night, it emerged that an intense Government and IDA lobbying campaign failed to persuade the US pharmaceutical giant to ringfence their 5,000-worker Irish operation from a global restructuring programme triggered by their $65bn (€55m) merger with rivals Wyeth last October.
Taoiseach Brian Cowen, IDA boss Barry O'Leary and Tanaiste Mary Coughlan had met with senior Pfizer officials in the US.
But Ireland bore the brunt of the global cuts and closures, along with Puerto Rico and the US, while job losses were also announced in Germany and the UK. Pfizer said it would continue to employ about 4,200 staff in Ireland and was continuing to look at investment and expansion opportunities.
It is planning to enhance its biotechnology operations, with jobs expected to be created in the division.
Pfizer global manufacturing president Nat Ricciardi said restructuring the plant network worldwide was critical to remaining competitive. "We will provide support to our colleagues who lose their jobs so that their transition to new careers is as smooth as possible," Mr Ricciardi said.
Opposition parties last night challenged the Government over the revelation that Italy and France -- whose governments also repeatedly lobbied Pfizer -- managed to avoid the worst of the 6,000 job losses globally. No plant in France or Italy will close.
"The Pfizer plant in France and Italy emerged from this whole bloodbath virtually unscathed -- so how is it that Ireland sustained 16pc of the global job losses and now faces the disaster of losing three entire plants?" Labour TD Ciaran Lynch asked.
Pfizer vice-president (Ireland) Dr Paul Duffy said he was "not aware" France had lobbied successfully.
Cork will be, in the long run, potentially the worst hit, facing the closure of two factories -- the Shanbally biotechnology plant, with 75 jobs, and the Loughbeg tabletting site, which has 225 staff.
Dun Laoghaire has also been earmarked for sale, with the threat of 210 layoffs. The factories are likely to shut any time from 18 months to five years from now.
Pfizer said the cutbacks were part of the pharmaceutical giant's plans to reduce its global workforce by 6,000 and would be complete by 2015.
The company also said it hoped the total number of lay-offs would not reach 785 as it hunted for buyers for the three factories -- a scheme it has adopted before.
An estimated 50pc of the Pfizer employees involved are third- level graduates, some with prized specialisations in pharmaceutical and biologics R&D.
The remaining 50pc are highly skilled technical and manufacturing operatives.
Last night pharmaceutical sector expert Dr van Egeraat told the Irish Independent: "The big issue here is that starting between now and the end of 2011 a lot of drugs come off patent.
"The current value of pharmaceutical exports is €44bn and 26pc of that is patent protected.
"It is improbable that this will continue to be manufactured in Ireland. Companies have started planning for this over the years," he said.
Tanaiste Mary Coughlan, standing in for Taoiseach Brian Cowen, who is currently at a summit in Madrid, stressed that enterprise officials were quite confident the factories in question could be sold, possibly saving jobs.