Bid to save Birds Eye factory collapses Published: 22 March, 2007
LAST ditch efforts to save the Birds Eye fish factory in Hull have failed.
The workforce voted by a large majority last night to accept the company redundancy terms which means the Hessle Road plant will close in September with the loss of around 550 jobs.
A consultation process was launched a few weeks ago to see if there was a viable way of saving the site, backed by the GMB Union and Hull West MP and Education Secretary Alan Johnson. But it became clear during the discussions that the company was determined it should go.
The redundancy terms are understood to be generous with workers receiving a minimum of 43 weeks pay, more or less the same terms they would have received under the previous Unilever ownership.
The collapse of the consultation process means that 40 years of continuous fish production by Birds Eye in Hull will come to an end – and the city will lose another blue chip employer. Production is being transferred to the Iglo site at Bremerhaven in Germany and to Birds Eye’s one remaining UK plant – at Lowestoft.
Both the GMB Union and MP Alan Johnson had urged the workforce to put forward alternative ideas which could save the factory for at least a few more years. The site also processes frozen vegetables during the summer months, but so far there has been no announcement about alternative production arrangement except to say that talks are continuing with local pea farmers.
Birds Eye and Unilever’s European frozen food interests, which include Iglo, were bought from Unilever by the private equity company Permira for £1.12billion last year.
Birds Eye’s chief executive Martin Glenn said at the time: “We inherited a business that has unsustainable over-capacity. The frozen food market is increasingly cost-driven. To be competitive you require large scale, highly efficient production facilities.”
He said the Hull factory was too small to be competitive and reluctantly it was decided to close it at the end of September.
He added: “The future success of our fish category can be best served through the consolidation of our production facilities into our larger and more efficient sites in Bremerhaven and Lowestoft.”
And John Strachan, Birds Eye’s European director said: “It was a hard decision, but purely a commercial one. It was nothing to do with Hull or the workforce as such, but we had fish production over capacity in our factories both in the UK and Europe. The fact is that Hull is small and cannot compete with our larger sites.”
Union officials are worried about the knock on effect the closure will have on fish supply companies and firms who service the factory. The GMB says it is going to be very difficult for fish workers to find jobs in a city where the fish processing industry continues to shrink.
Never before has the closure of a fish factory caused such a storm. Following the announcement, the GMB Union launched a major campaign against private equity buy-outs which went right to the top of the political establishment. Permira was accused of asset stripping at the expense of fish workers jobs. Protests were taken to Europe and to Permira’s boss Damon Buffini as he went to church.
The protests forced the private equity industry to promise to be more open. But since then many other famous British names such as the supermarket chain J Sainsbury have been targeted by private equity companies.
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