Birds Eye closure planned three years ago Published: 12 January, 2007
FROZEN food giant Birds Eye had been considering closing down their Hull fish factory for at least three years, it was revealed last night.
As a stunned port and city came to terms with the latest employment blow – closure with the loss of 550 jobs was officially announced yesterday – Hull West MP Alan Johnson described it as “terrible news for a loyal and hardworking workforce”.
But he added that it was well know within the industry that the previous owners, Unilever had been considering moving fish production from Hull to Bremerhaven in Germany since 2003. Birds Eye and most of Unilever’s frozen food interests including Iglo were sold to the private equity group Permira for around £1.12billion at the end of August.
Nine months ago he managed to secure three year guarantees on pensions and wage rates for the staff, but this did not include job security. “At the end of the day, Birds Eye is a separate company and Unilever were entitled to sell to who they liked. There is no way that the government could have intervened.”
Mr Johnson, who is also Secretary of State for Education, continued: “Ideally, we would have liked Birds Eye to have been sold as a solely UK company, but it was went as part of a wider European frozen package. There is a problem in Bremerhaven and that is why fish production is being transferred there.
“The fact that Birds Eye is a UK operation, employing people in Hull and elsewhere in the UK (Lowestoft) should have counted for something. But apparently it has not.”
Mr Johnson said there was now a 90 day consultation process and both the staff and unions would use that time to put counter proposals to Birds Eye. “We hope for the best, but we fear the worst given the hard nosed people we are dealing with.”
Martin Glenn, chief executive officer of Birds Eye/Iglo, who travelled up to Hull to break the news personally, said: “We have 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.” 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 in Germany and Lowestoft.”
Factory manager Andy Stark said: “Clearly, this is devastating news for the people in the Hull operation. We have a highly committed and skilled workforce who have tried their very best to move the site forward over the last couple of years in an attempt to retain volume at the factory.”
Staff have been offered the chance to relocate to Lowestoft – and even Bremerhaven if they want it – but few are likely to take up the offer because of the huge gulf in house prices between Hull and Suffolk.
Staff leaving the Birds Eye factory – many in tears – called on Tony Blair to halt the movement of immigrant workers into the country. They also attacked Birds Eye boss Martin Glenn for painting a misleading upbeat picture when Permira first took over Birds Eye. “They bought us to close us – and they knew it,” said one worker.
Meanwhile, the GMB Union said it would try to secure the best redundancy terms for the workforce. Local union organiser John Wilson said the Unilever guarantees on terms and conditions last year was pure cynicism.
He added: “They have got fat on profits from fish factories on Humberside and Unilever will not be forgiven for this cynical and dishonest behaviour or for the sale of a company to buccaneering venture capitalist asset strippers. Permira is well known for sacking one in three workers as when they took over the AA in 2004.”