Factory closure leaves town to live on its pride

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Labour Editor

This week a new brand name will be launched for a product that does not exist. It is to be made in a factory devoid of machinery and by a workforce who are largely unemployed.

The trademark "Marypride" is the last best hope of redundant food processing workers in the isolated West Cumbrian town of Maryport.

Community leaders are looking for investors to make the brand name a reality and many of the skilled food production workers are ready to invest their severance pay.

Amid a national outcry, the American soup company Campbell announced last year that all 123 employees were to be made redundant from the local Homepride factory, one of the area's largest employers.

When the US multi-national bought the profitable plant in the summer from British company Dalgety, employees were assured that new investment was imminent and that their jobs were safe. Asked whether there were to be job losses, managers answered with a categoric "no". Eleven weeks later, in an area with pockets of unemployment of 25 per cent, they announced that the factory was to close. The plant was due to shut last Friday. But amid accusations that management was keen to avoid the critical glare of the media, the company brought forward the shutdown by two weeks.

Management insists there was "nothing sinister" about the early closure and that their " cooperative and loyal" workers had simply fulfilled the production quota earlier than estimated.

However, within hours of the last employee leaving, hired staff began stripping the building of equipment, and within days the bulk of the machinery had disappeared down the M6 to the group's plants in more southerly locations like Salford and King's Lynn.

Dale Campbell-Savours, MP for Workington, has conducted a campaign against the closure and will this week urge former workers to take industrial tribunal cases against Dalgety, the former owners of the factory, for failing to provide adequate information about the sale.

Traders in the area say business has already slumped. Apart from a series of "wakes" by redundant employees, pubs have also seen their business decline. Since the Homepride shutdown, around 200 redundancies at other companies in West Cumbria have been announced, and the town's very survival is now in doubt.

Critics in the area say Campbell had no intention of keeping the business going. They allege the company was only interested in the Homepride brand name and in destroying the competition.

The equipment has been removed to ensure that any potential competitors would need to make a substantial investment to enter the market, say the company's former workers.

Anger over the shutdown is not confined to Cumbria. An early day motion in the Commons critical of the closure was signed by 340 MPs - one of the highest totals ever. More importantly, 48 of the signatories were Conservatives, including six former ministers.

Campbell insists that it was unaware of all the significant financial facts when it bought the factory.

In a letter to MPs, Bill Mustoe, the group's UK managing director, argued that the plant suffered from significantly higher cost than the company's four other British plants. Only a fifth of the production capacity was in use, overheads were at least 50 per cent cent higher than elsewhere, and the brand had lost more than a third of market share in the past four years.

Former employees argue, however, that Campbell knew all the figures before it bought it. Confidential internal figures, obtained by Mr Campbell-Savours, state that the plant was making profits of pounds 4m on sales of pounds 27.7m.

George Thompson, 52, a former shop steward at the factory, believes his working life is probably finished. "It's through no fault of our own," he said. "There has never been a strike here and we were making them a decent profit."

Brian Dixon, a full-time official with the GMB general union in the area, was with Mr Thompson when Campbell's managers gave assurances over the future of the plant. "I felt a deep sense of betrayal. I felt that they had raped the town. They gave me their personal assurances and I took them at face value. I told my members that they shouldn't worry and they felt a huge feeling of relief.

"In some ways I feel as though I have personally betrayed these workers. I feel sad and sickened that I have been used and misled. I've never felt like it in 19 years as a union official and I never want to feel like it again."