Ford puts Liverpool on road to nowhere

Gloom at Halewood plant as company cuts a third of workforce
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The Independent Online
A dark cloud hung over Merseyside yesterday as workers at Ford's Halewood plant waited to see if they would still have their jobs at the end of the day.

The official announcement that one-third of the workforce would be made redundant cast serious doubts over the future of the plant, which has been building Escorts for almost 30 years. Union leaders said that they would fight Ford's decision to move the manufacture of the car to Spain and Germany. They believed a stand had to be taken as Britain was rapidly becoming the easiest place in Europe to dump labour.

But Halewood's workforce and the local community have heard it all before, and they are weary of fighting.

Dave Kelly is 35 and has worked on the factory's production line for eight years. Yesterday's confirmation that 1,300 jobs are to go was an awful echo from the past: "I've been made redundant seven times since I started work. How can you live like that?"

"We have been through it so many times, the community suffered a lot in 1977 when the Triumph TR7 plant was closed and now it appears it's happening again," he said.

Mr Kelly, who is married and has a five-year-old son, said that if the factory goes so will a part of Merseyside. "There is no security any more. Today they say 1,300, tomorrow it could be more."

The announcement was followed by a furious row in the Commons over a comment by the Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, who said, "You can't win them all", and warnings that Ford's "body blow" to the region could culminate in the complete closure of the plant.

The Prime Minister sought to defuse the row, describing Ford's decision to axe one-third of the workforce as "very surprising". John Major added that the move "flies in the face of most investment decisions which are moving to the UK".

Earlier, the Labour Treasury spokesman, Alan Milburn, had pressed the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, Angela Knight, about Mr Clarke's remark, made during an interview on Sky TV. "How can you defend this complacency when the loss of quality manufacturing employment is such a devastating blow, not just to the North-west but to the whole of the British economy?" Mr Milburn asked.

The cutbacks could mean Ford having to import an extra 125,000 cars, worsening the motor industry's trade deficit which is estimated to have reached pounds 5bn in 1995.

Last night, national union officials and senior shop stewards from Ford's 20 United Kingdom plants "totally rejected" the decision to scale back the Halewood workforce and concentrate production of the new Escort in Germany and Spain.

Mass meetings will be held at all the Ford plants, including Dagenham in Essex, Southampton, Belfast and Bridgend and Swansea in South Wales over the next week to decide whether a full strike ballot will be held.

Ford sought to soften the blow by pledging that there would be no compulsory redundancies and announcing plans to build a new vehicle at Halewood "subject to appropriate product and investment approvals and to competitive levels of performance being achieved". The new vehicle is expected to be a small "people carrier" based on the platform of the new Escort. The company said that the plan was to start manufacture in 2000 but it would give no production or employment figures.

In the meantime, the Halewood plant will go down to a single shift producing a maximum of 145,000 cars a year against 153,000 in 1996 with a workforce of 3,000.

Striking may not seem a realistic option for a majority of the plant's workforce, since it is unlikely that the other plants would support them with only 1,300 jobs threatened. But for many it is the only option, and employees did not rule it out yesterday.

James Hayden, 44, a welder, said he would consider anything to protect his job because there are so few employment opportunities available in the rest of Liverpool. "When I told my wife the news last night she was devastated. I don't think we would be able to survive on her income alone," he said. "I feel sorry for the people of Speke because there is nothing here for them anymore."

Liverpool's unemployment rate is 11.5 per cent compared to the national average of 6.7 per cent. As many as one in three people are out of work in Speke, the large council estate where many of the Halewood workers live.

The estate opposite the plant is already run down, with walls covered in graffiti and windows boarded up. Nicky McDonagh, 24, who lives there, said it was a terrible place with no future, and now things would get worse. "It is what we have come to expect over the years. The bank and supermarket here have shut down and soon there'll be nothing".