Ford gives workers final warning on sick leave

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The Independent Online

Troubles in the British car industry switched to Ford yesterday when workers at the company's biggest British plant were told to cut sickness absence rates or face "decline".

Troubles in the British car industry switched to Ford yesterday when workers at the company's biggest British plant were told to cut sickness absence rates or face "decline".

The signal came from a senior Ford manager at the Dagenham plant in Essex, where 1,350 redundancies were recently announced and production was cut from two shifts a day to one.

It was the latest blow to confidence in the sector as recriminations continued over the Rover sell-off, with the emergence of a rival bid for the beleaguered firm.

Elsewhere, up to 200 workers at Vauxhall's engine plant in Ellesmere Port, Cheshire, staged a lightning walk-out over working schedules.

Workers at Dagenham received a letter from the factory's general manufacturing manager, Bill McIlquham, saying the plant, which builds the Ford Fiesta car and van had yet to meet any of its production schedules this year.

He wrote: "We are at the crossroads. We will either achieve our commitments and secure the significant growth and investment that is vital for the future or will continue as we have done recently, which will ultimately result in our decline."

Turning to sickness absence rates, Mr McIlquham said: "It is embarrassing to me thatwe have not built the schedule on any one day this year and have rarely built the schedule in any one hour."

Workers were urged to improve absence levels "immediately" and improve quality as well as "housekeeping" at the plant. Union officials said there had been an overwhelming response to requests for volunteers for redundancy, so it was "hardly surprising" sickness levels had risen.

Ford is doing a Europe-wide review of its operation and there had been speculation that car assembly at Dagenham, a long-standing production benchmark for the sector in the Britain, could end.

Tony Woodley, chief Ford negotiator for the Transport and General Workers' Union, said: "If I was a cynic, the drip-feeding of despondent information such as this could be seen as classic preparation for further bad news."

The redundancies at the Dagenham plant were announced earlier this year in the wake of management concerns about over-capacity.

A Ford spokesman said the response to a request for volunteers to take the redundancy offer had been "very good", but could not give figures.

Vauxhall was hit by the walkout over production of its V6 engine after it launched an initiative to hit back at critics of new car prices.

It said it was offering some of its most popular models at prices which compared with cars imported from continental Europe.

A spokesman said the workers were expected to return to work tomorrow. "We are extremely disappointed by the action they have taken; we have tried to keep them in discussion. They are returningto work tomorrow morning. We haven't had this sort of action for 20 years but it is due to dissatisfaction over reducing shifts."

The walk-out came as Vauxhall launched the initiative to hit back at the "notion" that vehicle prices are inflated in Britain. Savings of around £2,000 could be made on some models, said Vauxhall, which will advertise its offer in a press campaign starting today.