Fury as 850 Mini workers given hour's notice

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The Independent Online

Car giant Mini sparked outrage today after announcing 850 job cuts, giving just an hour's notice to workers and leaving many with no pay-off.

Agency staff at the huge factory in Cowley, near Oxford, vented their anger on union leaders, pelting them with fruit before storming out of the plant saying they felt "betrayed".

Unions attacked BMW, the German owners of the Mini, accusing them of using workers as "cannon fodder", and called on the Government to intervene to give immediate rights to agency workers.

Derek Simpson, joint general secretary of Unite telephoned Business Secretary Lord Mandelson pressing him to introduce a European directive on agency workers so those affected by the Cowley cuts would receive redundancy pay, while joint leader Tony Woodley fumed that the treatment of the workers had been "disgraceful".

He said: "We have demanded an urgent meeting with the chairman of BMW in light of today's dismissal of 850 workers at the end of a shift. This is no way to treat workers, and I personally shall be pushing BMW to revoke this decision and give people their jobs back.

"The company must look at more acceptable and humane ways of addressing the capacity issues it faces. It is unacceptable that workers can be viewed as cannon fodder when a company needs shelter from recession. Full consideration must be given to more creative means in which to keep people in work, including short-time working."

The job cuts will only affect agency workers at Cowley, which will switch from seven-day-a-week production to five days from March 2 following a 35% slump in sales last month.

Workers were given the grim news towards the end of their shift today, shortly before the factory closed for a week-long shutdown.

One of the workers, Silvia Fernandes, said: "I've never been sick, I've never missed work and they tell me one hour before (my shift ended) that I have been sacked. That's why people are angry and so upset with BMW and with the union."

John Cunningham, who has worked at the factory for more than two years, said: "I feel betrayed. They've planned this for months and we've only just been told - one hour's notice. We've been given a week's pay for an enforced week off, which I suppose is a week's notice. I don't know what's going to happen to me and my family. It's very scary."

BMW said staff who currently worked weekend shifts at Cowley would be redeployed to one of the weekday shifts.

A statement said: "While Mini has been weathering the economic downturn, it is not immune from the challenges of the current situation.

"Against this backdrop, the company felt that a review of its shift patterns was necessary. This decision has not been taken lightly. The plant's union representatives have, of course, been involved in the discussions."

Prime Minister Gordon Brown's spokesman said: "This is very disappointing news and all I can say really is the Government is doing and will do all that we can to help those affected."

The spokesman added that a rescue package for the car industry which was announced recently was still being implemented.

On a visit to Cardiff, Conservative leader David Cameron said the news was "extremely depressing".

"The Mini has been a great boost for Britain and a great boost for Oxfordshire.

"I think what that shows is we are in a deep recession, we need more action on credit. We need to make sure we get that finance moving."

Asked about the treatment of the workers, he said: "The most important thing is to try and make sure we get workers jobs and that's about getting credit moving."

Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Theresa May said: "This is another major blow to the car industry and shows that Gordon Brown's policies simply aren't working.

The carmaker added it had identified 150 surplus workers at its Mini plant in Swindon, who will be offered a transfer to Cowley.

West Midlands Conservative MEP Malcolm Harbour, a former director of the Rover car company, said today: "The British Government is not tackling the underlying cause of manufacturers' woes - the lack of demand for new vehicles.

"How many more jobs must be lost before the Government realises it has failed to take the right action?"

A Business Department spokesman said: "We intend to launch a consultation in the near future about how the UK will implement the Agency Workers Directive, which set out additional protections for agency workers on basic working and employment conditions - such as pay, holidays and overtime.

"It is important that we provide protections for working people without removing the important flexibility that agency work can offer both employers and workers."

Jane Moorman, head of employment at law firm Howard Kennedy said: "The agency workers will have little immediate legal protection for the loss of what many will have regarded as a steady job."

Cowley, which has a capacity to produce 260,000 cars a year, started building the Mini in 2001, and the marque has been hugely successful, especially abroad, with 80% of the factory's output sold for export.

The announcement is more grim news for the car industry which has laid off thousands of workers in recent weeks, including 1,200 at Nissan, 850 at Ford, 600 at Aston Martin and 450 at Jaguar Land Rover.

Production cuts have been announced across the industry, including a four-month shutdown at Honda.

Mr Woodley later asked why BMW had not consulted with unions before making today's announcement, adding: "They know there are people like me and our national officials working tirelessly to secure Government support for the UK car industry.

"Why haven't BMW asked for voluntary redundancies? They chose instead to discard these workers and save a few bob because as agency workers they are the easiest to throw on the dole, and second class citizens in the workplace.

"We will not stand by and let these workers be so disgracefully treated."

The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders reiterated its call for an incentive scheme to encourage owners of older cars to trade them in for newer models.

The group said a so-called "scrappage scheme" would allow cars and vans over nine years old to be scrapped in return for a £2,000 cash incentive towards a new or nearly new vehicle.

Similar schemes adopted in Germany, France and Italy have proved successful, significantly boosting the market and reducing CO2 emissions by taking some of the older vehicles off the road, said the SMMT.

"Urgent action is needed to get consumers back into the showrooms and boost demand in the market. It is vital that car buyers are given the confidence to buy now and a scrappage incentive scheme is a clear signal which has already proved successful in other EU member states," said Paul Everitt, SMMT chief executive.

"The UK Government must align with Europe and take immediate action to protect its automotive sector."

It has been estimated that schemes recently introduced in Germany and France are likely to generate 200,000 to 400,000 replacement vehicles.