Unions swing into action against job losses

By Ahmed ElAmin

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Uk Total uk workforce United kingdom

With the UK's food industry migrating jobs to other EU countries,
the big unions are swinginginto action to prevent further losses.

Last week the GMB, one of the UK's largest unions, successfully petitioned the ruling LabourParty to form an action plan to stop businesses closing plants in the country and moving production elsewhere. Today, the International Food Workers Union (IUF) accuses Nestle of breaching international guidelines in its plan to close a Smarties production factory in York. The moves were sparked by a Nestlé announcement in September 2006, saying that they will transfer the production of the Smarties brand from York to Germany. The GMB claims the move means the loss of 645 jobs in the UK. This follows on from a previous announcement of 234 job losses in their UK headquarters earlier this year. Nestlé says the move was part of an restructuring programme to improve the competitiveness of its Nestlé Rowntree confectionery business. The plan includes a £20m expansion of the York site."This will help to safeguard long-term employment for over 1,800 of our employees in York," the company stated on 21 September. The York area has been particularly hard hit. Last month British Sugar also announced 117 job losses in the area.A year ago Terry's chocolates transferred the production of the famous "Chocolate Orange" from York to Poland with the loss of 316 jobs. These closures are not confined to York, but are happening across the UK, the GMB points out. Earlier this year Birds Eye Foods closed their site in Grimsby with the loss of 620 jobs. HP moved the production of "HP Sauce" from Birmingham to the Netherlands. Northern Foods have just announced the closure of their Trafford Park bakery with the loss of 700 jobs and another 100 in the Leedsheadquarters. "These decisions are made as part of global plans, based on a mixture of lower wage costs and lack of investment in UK plant, buildings andtechnology," the GMB stated in its presentation to the Labour Party conference last week."These companies and sites are the major employers in these areas, with loyal, skilled workforces and good pay and conditions." The Labour Party conference voted to call on the government to meet with Nestle to persuade themto keep production in the UK. The government should also meet with industry and trade unions todevelop a strategy to keep food manufacturing jobs in the UK, the party stated in voting for themeasure. A third resolution called on government to set up regional community development funds, to assist in training, and retraining of workers and to encourage inward investmentto provide new skilled employment. In another development the general secretary of IUF, Ron Oswald, has written to the UK and Swiss governments accusing Nestle of being in breach ofthe Organisation of Economic Development and Cooperation (OECD) guidelines for multinational enterprises. Following Nestle's announcement of their intention to eliminate 645 jobs and transfer theSmarties production lines from York to other plants on the continent, the company announced that it was unilaterally withdrawing from existing collective agreements setting out terms and conditions. The IUF letter says that has Nestle stipulated: "Should agreement not be achieved, new terms and conditions will be applied via a process of termination and re-engagement". "The letter goes on to say that this act is clearly designed to put severe pressure on the workers and their union representatives atYork to accept conditions unilaterally imposed by Nestle management in its intention to achieve a 15per cent reduction in costs," Oswald stated in a press release. He claims the approach violates OECD guidelines that say that companies should not threaten to transfer the whole or part of an operating unit froma country while in negotiations with unions. "The unions at York have indicated their willingness to engage in good faith negotiations with thecompany," Oswald stated. "Nestle should similarly commit itself, rather than unilaterally withdrawing from a negotiated agreement and issuing ultimatums backed by the threat of immediate sacking and productiontransfers." Nestlé has 23 sites across the UK, including plants in York, Croydon, Halifax and Tutbury. Improve, a government agency set up to promote employee training in the food industry. puts part of the blame on the job migration out of the UK on a lack of skilled labour. Over the course of two years many companies, including Kraft and Heinz, been relocating plants to places like Russia, China and Eastern Europe. The UK's food and drink industry has one of the most poorly qualified workforces in the UK, according to Improve. About 19 per cent of the sectors workforce has no qualifications, compared to the average of 11 per cent for the total UK workforce. A survey last year by the organisation estimated that UK food and drink manufacturers also need to find 118,000 skilled workers to replace those who retire from or leave the industry. The UK'S food and drink manufacturing sector employs somewhere between 500,000 and 900,000 staff, or about 1.6 per cent f the total UK workforce. Improve was established in July 2004 by the Skills for Business Network and is sponsored by the UK's department for learning and skills.

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