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Rebellion looms for weavers as personal contracts arrive in capitalism' s last outpost

The croft-based weavers of Harris tweed fabric in the Hebredian islands have finally come up against the rigours of modern competitive business practices.

The Harris tweed fabric, famed among soi-disant aristocrats around the world, is at the centre of a dispute after its main producers suffered a mini-rebellion by crofters.

The Macleod-Mackenzie mill group on the adjoining islands of Harris and Lewis, which controls 90 per cent of the pounds 11m market, has placed adverts in a local newspaper urging weavers to work solely for it.

Seeking a network of "premier weavers", the company says: "In view of the close nature of this relationship, it would be inappropriate for Premier Weavers to have any financial or management interest in any other organisation producing Harris Tweed."

However, representatives of the 400 weavers on the islands have set up this summer a co-operative called Harris Tweed Weavers Co, which aims to cash in on an expanding market expected to to be worth pounds 50m by 2000.

They have complained to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, stating that the Macleod group is trying to corner the market.

A spokesman, John Morrison, said Macleod's plans would benefit some crofters but would leave others "twiddling their thumbs".

The co-op director, Donald Morrison, retorted: "This sort of thing goes against the spirit of weaving as a community industry.

"The aim should be to get as much work as possible for the islands' weavers - not for mills to try to do each other down."

The immediate dispute is over pounds 10m of European Union grants to help to convert the traditional 75cm hand looms to 150 cm looms, which is the standard now adopted by the clothing industry.

Macleod-Mackenzie says its moves are an attempt to guarantee work and increase business but denys that it is only offering personal contracts.

"People can work for other people as well," a spokesman said.

Harris Tweed is made from pure new wool and is handmade by crofters at their homes. It is known as a hard-wearing fabric and is widely used in tailoring, fashion and furnishings.

The anxiety over the moves towards exclusive working was reflected by one Lewis weaver yesterday who said he and his fellow weavers were now "really confused and worried" over the best way forward for them to secure work.

"I think we all want to be independent but we also want steady work," said the 44-year-old weaver.

"Whatever we decide to do, we will be upsetting someone."

The co-operative's leaders formally took action and reported the offer of personal contracts by the group, an amalgamation of the long-established mills run by Kenneth Macleod Ltd and Kenneth Mackenzie Ltd, to the MMC.

Their letter to the commission says a near-monopoly supplier is raising significant barriers to the entry of new competitors by undertaking restrictive practices.

The MMC said last night that it could only consider a reference from the Department of Trade and Industry and it was aware of no such request.