It's easier to axe British jobs, admits GM's European chief

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The Independent Online

General Motors provoked a wildcat strike at Vauxhall's Ellesmere Port plant on Merseyside yesterday by saying it would be easier to cut jobs there because of the robustness of the UK labour market.

The comments by the president of GM Europe, Carl-Peter Forster, intensified fears that the company has already decided to cut production at the plant with 1,000 job losses, even though negotiations between management and unions are still taking place.

Union officials described the walkout, which halted production of the Astra model, as a "spontaneous" reaction to Mr Forster's "extremely unhelpful" remarks. Roger Maddison, national officer of Amicus, said: "The unions have put various proposals to the company to prevent job cuts at Ellesmere Port which the company are considering. This is an emotional reaction from a loyal and highly productive workforce who are understandably fearful for their jobs and the future of the plant.

"We would have expected better from such a senior executive of the company."

Mr Forster's remarks were made on Wednesday night at the official opening of a new design centre in Russelsheim, Germany. He said that the union proposal to spread the job cuts across the three plants in Europe which make the Astra would "just delay a real solution". He said it would be simpler to make the cuts at Ellesmere Port because the workers there would have a better chance of finding new jobs.

"We know, thank God, that the English labour market is more able to absorb workers than that, for example, in Germany or Belgium," he said.

Last night, GM sought to placate the unions by insisting that no decision about job cuts had been made. However, it repeated Mr Forster's comments that it was preferable to make job cuts in the UK. "The intention was to show the robustness of the labour market overall in the UK, and its ability to absorb jobs, should the decision ultimately be made to reduce employment at the facility in Ellesmere Port. It was not intended to be a comment on labour policies in the UK," General Motors said in a statement.

Tony Woodley, general secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union, said Mr Forster's comments proved Britain was the "soft touch of Europe" when it came to taking away workers' jobs. "That's why Vauxhall has zeroed in on Ellesmere Port when it considers throwing 1,000 car workers on the dole. British car workers are among the best in Europe, but they're the easiest to sack. These decisions are not led by business logic, but by the fact that our laws don't protect our workers," Mr Woodley said.

Ellesmere Port's 3,250-strong workforce produced 188,800 Astras last year - about a third of all the Astras made in Europe. Unions fear that GM is about to cut out one of three shifts at the plant, with the loss of 1,000 jobs.

This would represent a fresh blow to the UK motor industry following Peugeot's recent decision to close its Coventry plant with 2,300 job losses, and the closure last year of MG Rover's Longbridge factory and Jaguar's Coventry site.

Workers arriving for the morning shift at Ellesmere Port were equally angry at Mr Forster's remarks. Paint shop worker Alan Jones, 50, from Birkenhead, said: "This is just another slap in the gob for the British car industry. We're easy pickings when it comes to laying off workers.

"They perform an audit on this factory every six months and we always mark higher than most of the other plants in standardisation, cost efficiency, safety, quality, you name it. It's cheaper and easier to get rid of British workers than in places like Germany, where the unions are stronger."