Workforce in two minds over innovative deal

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The Independent Online
PAT QUINN is a supervisor in the body shop at Sunderland. He is 38 and married with three kids and a mortgage, and there is 'no way' he is going to take up Nissan's offer of agreed severance.

The same goes for Kevin Reah, 29, a shopfloor worker in trim and final assembly. 'I am hitting 30 with a wife and a mortgage and a young baby,' he says. 'A lot of people on the shopfloor who are of my age and background will see it the same way.'

However, the two men, both members of the Nissan company council, think many others will be tempted by the offer of six months' tax-free pay and the chance to kiss goodbye to night shifts and the back-breaking tyranny of the production line.

The Nissan management at Sunderland, and their bosses in Japan, are banking on Pat and Kevin's instincts being right. For the past year, Nissan has turned somersaults in its attempt not to 'lose face' and lay off any of its Sunderland workforce in the face of a collapse in demand.

Finally the night shift was scrapped, but, faced with little prospect of an upturn in Europe next year, everyone knew that a more radical solution would be required come the new year.

Peter Wickens, Nissan's personnel director, says: 'Rather than impose a solution, we went in for genuine consultation with the workforce to find out what they thought best. I told them it was going to be a bloody tough job. They said don't be surprised if we come up with something you haven't thought of.'

The concept of 'agreed severance' was the result of this grassroots consultation. Kevin says: 'The message we were getting from the shopfloor was that the factory had to return to full shift working as soon as possible.'

With production levels next year likely to be down by up to 25 per cent, that inevitably meant a smaller workforce. Pat says: 'I think the package we have put together is generous enough to tempt people to take it. The workload at Sunderland is very demanding, physically and mentally. Just coming to terms with the night shift is difficult enough. There may be young lads in their twenties living at home for whom the job pays the bills but who still see this as a chance to get out.'

But in an area where unemployment is running at more than 10 per cent and where traditional industries such as shipbuilding, steel and mining are all but extinct, actually jumping into the dole queue may be more daunting.

The truth is no one knows how many will take up Nissan's innovative answer to recession. If the response is poor, the plant will just have to soldier on with a slower line speed or fewer shifts. After all, a job for life is a job for life.