Financially crippled company has a history of staff disputes

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The Independent Online

Before last Wednesday, few people other than the workers at Heathrow airport had heard of Gate Gourmet, the in-flight meals supplier. But when a staff row at the company escalated, bringing one of the world's busiest airports to a halt and leaving more than 100,000 passengers stranded at the height of the summer holiday period, Gate Gourmet and its inner workings was thrown into the spotlight.

The company, whose sacking of 670 people on Wednesday led to walk-outs by British Airways staff, has a history of staff disputes, with unions in the US threatening to strike after cuts to wages and benefits. US union officials have said the company is not prepared to consider any middle ground when talking to employees and would "squeeze every last penny from workers" rather than invest in the business.

Workers at Heathrow have had a long-running dispute with management and have complained that the company, led by David Bonderman, a US financial tycoon, has been trying to downgrade their pay and conditions for some time , with workloads increasing as numbers fall. Drivers' hourly pay rates were being cut from £8 an hour to £6.35. The number of flights that staff were expected to service has risen from 42 to 72, and workers claim that management were trying to cut back the number of sick days they were allowed per year from 25 to five. Under the company's plans, overtime pay rates, which rose according to the length of a shift, were to become a flat rate and shift patterns were changed. Workers also claim that staff were promoted to management positions and then made redundant, so the company could say it was cutting only management jobs. Attempts to reach a new pay deal with staff and unions have foundered.

A recruitment agency set up eight months ago by the company to replace its existing workforce has also angered staff. The division, Verso Logistics, has already shipped in workers from eastern Europe. The company defended the subsidiary yesterday, saying it had to have contingency staffing plans in case of strike action. "For many months there has been the threat of action. It is good management sense to be able to get people in quickly if there is a strike," a spokesman said.

The company has been financially crippled for many years, which it says means working practices have to change. Otherwise, it says, the company will go bust, making its entire UK workforce of 3,000 redundant. As airlines have gone through major cost-cutting over the past few years in the wake of heightened terrorism fears, increased competition and rising oil prices, in-flight catering businesses have taken a hit. Gate Gourmet has sustained huge losses over the past five years. It is on course to make a £25m loss this year, and management says it must make staff more productive and efficient if the company is to stay afloat.

The company says working conditions have not changed since the 1970s, and staff are paid for a full shift when they work only half a shift. Workers also refuse to help on other production lines when work on their line has finished. "People are being paid for not working," a spokesman said.