Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Axe falls across U.S., Europe

Talk about having a bad case of the blue Mondays.

Nearly 60,000 workers learned yesterday that they will join the growing ranks of unemployed after more than half a dozen companies in the United States and Europe announced steep job cuts in the face of a bleak global economy.

Those affected included employees at such U.S. blue-chip firms as Pfizer Inc., Caterpillar Inc. and General Motors Corp., as well as at wireless giant Sprint Nextel and retailer Home Depot Inc.

Meanwhile, European heavyweights ING and Philips Electronics also slashed thousands of jobs in a bid to cut costs.

While the cuts didn't appear to have an immediate impact on Canadian workers, economists predicted more sweeping layoffs to take place in this country.

"Unfortunately, I think we're going to start seeing it a lot more here in Canada as well," said Doug Porter, the deputy chief economist at BMO Capital Markets.

He noted that Canada lost more than 100,000 full-time jobs in December and November of last year and predicted the trend would continue for at least the next six months.

While the unemployment rate in Canada stood at 6.2 per cent on Jan. 9, Porter predicted the closely watched measure would reach 8 per cent by year's end.

By contrast, the unemployment rate south of the border reached 7.2 per cent in December, the highest level in 16 years, and is widely expected to keep climbing.

"I don't think that we'll ultimately see the same rate of job decline in Canada," said Porter, referring to the U.S. figures. "But it will be uncomfortably close at its worst."

The avalanche of layoff notices issued yesterday included 20,000 cuts at Caterpillar, the world's largest maker of construction and mining machinery; 8,000 jobs at wireless provider Sprint Nextel; 7,000 workers at Home Depot, and 8,000 from pharmaceutical maker Pfizer, and thousands more if Pfizer's merger with Wyeth is approved.

Beleaguered automaker General Motors also said it would cut shifts at plants in Michigan and Ohio, where the downturn has hit hardest, eliminating some 2,000 jobs.

In Europe, banking and insurance group ING said it would cut 7,000 jobs; electronics company Philips 6,000, and the steel maker Corus 3,500 worldwide. Spanish steel producer Acerinox said it may temporarily lay off workers at its Spanish factory, which employs 2,500 people, if demand does not improve.

"We're now into the danger zone," said Brian Bethune, chief U.S. financial economist at IHS Global Insight. "It really becomes pernicious because the uncertainty increases, corporate confidence is badly battered, and you get these severe measures being taken."

U.S. President Barack Obama cited the layoff announcements in remarks yesterday as he urged Congress to approve an $825 billion economic stimulus package of tax cuts, emergency benefits and public spending projects.

"These are not just numbers on a page," Obama said. "As with the millions of jobs lost in 2008, these are working men and women whose families have been disrupted and whose dreams have been put on hold. We owe it to each of them and to every single American to act with a sense of urgency and common purpose.

"We can't afford distractions and we cannot afford delays."

There has been a grim parade of job cuts in recent weeks from Wall Street to wireless providers to computer companies to retail stores. Last week, Microsoft announced it would cut 5,000 jobs over the next year and a half; Sony in Japan and Ericsson in Sweden each announced 5,000 layoffs; and the motorcycle maker Harley-Davidson said it was eliminating 1,000 jobs. Car makers in Japan, South Korea and Europe have also cut jobs in recent months as did cell phone maker Nokia.

Canadian companies in industries that range from manufacturing to media have also been tightening their belts with a mixture of job cuts and other cost-eduction measures.

Last week, Air Canada revealed it was laying off another 345 flight attendants as it pared flying on certain routes and reduced the number of cabin crew serving business class customers on transatlantic flights.

The cuts come on top of about 2,000 positions the country's largest airline said it was slashing last June, although about half of the previous cuts were realized without resorting to involuntary layoffs.

Bell Canada Inc. also said last week that it was offering early retirement incentives to about 1,500 of its 41,000 employees.