Another kind of export: 150 jobs are sold and shipped to China

Global market/ Telford loses
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The Independent Online
THE FIRST time the workers at British Polythene Industries in Telford ran into the global market was when 40 Chinese arrived at their factory and began to inspect their machines.

Introductions were made by interpreters, and the management ordered the bemused staff to train the Chinese to use the 60 extruders, rollers and blowers that were squirting out millions of carrier bags for Britain's supermarkets.

"We were a little suspicious," said one. "There had been talk about closure ever since BPI took us over two years ago. But the boss told us not to worry ... that our futures were secure. I didn't realise that we were training them to take our jobs."

But take them they did. Tomorrow the factory shuts, and its 150 workers will be made redundant. At the same time, in the city of Xinhui, Guangdong province, China, work on wiring up a new carrier bag manufacturer will finish and 120 people will begin a new career - at wages one-tenth of those in Telford.

This is the globalisation of the world economy, arriving in Shropshire. But the closure of the Telford factory, which lies a few miles from where the Industrial Revolution began at the Coalbrookdale iron works, is not a consequence of shifts in the economic balance of power, but a straight, visible swap of jobs in Britain for jobs in China.

British Polythene Industries (BPI) owns 60 per cent of the Chinese plant. Machines used by the Telford workers have been packed up and shipped out to the Far East. The company's Shropshire staff are angry and uncomprehending. Their plant is not an old, inefficient smokestack, destined to be torn down, but a brightly coloured product of 1980s architecture.

The turquoise and aquamarine corrugated iron building stands amid neatly clipped lawns in a modern industrial park.

When staff were taken on five years ago by its original owner, the American company Sonocco, they thought they were escaping from the declining industries of the West Midlands to a bright, modern future. Many moved their families to Telford, bought homes and began the task of putting down new roots. Those who cannot get work elsewhere in BPI's network of packaging factories are now stuck with mortgages of up to £70,000.

"We're really pissed off," said one worker, who like all his colleagues did not want to be named for fear that the management would retaliate by taking away his redundancy pay. "We cut costs and pushed up production. Then they just called us all together and said they were sorry but it was over and the work was going to China."

"As soon as the Chinese came, I realised something was up," said another. "I wasn't going to help cut my own throat. I'd like to see them try to operate a machine on the instructions I gave."

Many blamed the Government for not protecting British industry. But most could not understand how their jobs could be shifted to the other side of the world.

To the management of BPI, the move makes perfect sense. John Sale, its external relations manager, said that the Telford factory was already in trouble and simply could not compete with the Far East.

Everything was cheaper in China. The chemical by-products to make polythene were 10 per cent cheaper. The wages for the workers were 10 times cheaper.

In Telford, the lowest wage is £200 a week or £10,400 a year; skilled workers get about £20,000; and foremen and middle managers are on much more.

And in China? "We're paying the Chinese up to £2,500 a year," said Mr Sale. "That's a very good wage for them - top of the range, in fact.

"Don't go away thinking that this is going to be some kind of sweatshop. The workers will have safety shoes and gloves and everything in the factory will be done to European standards."

All the normal problems of moving production thousands of miles from the market have been solved. If Sainsbury or Marks & Spencer want a new design for their bags done quickly, the company can E-Mail it to China and start production immediately.

Once the factory is up and running, 750 million bags will be shipped to Europe each year. If there is an unexpected supply problem, the company will hire space on planes and fly in bags from the Far East to cover the gap.

Even with all the extra transport costs, the bags from China will be 20 per cent cheaper than the bags from Telford. Supermarkets will be charged £12 a thousand, compared with the £15 a thousand for bags made in Britain.

The Chinese government has done everything it can to encourage the company to move. BPI has been given exemptions from tax and rent; a government company has given it a site and buildings.

"We couldn't have gone anywhere in Europe and got conditions like that," said Mr Sale. "I suppose you'd have to go to North Africa to find labour as cheap. But they wouldn't have the Chinese ability to understand the technology so quickly."

The City analysts who monitor BPI approve wholeheartedly of the company's plans.

Asda, Safeway and Gateway have already switched massive orders to the Far East, and BPI had to respond.

A spokesman for the stockbrokers James Capel said that the supermarkets, engaged in a desperate price war to maintain their positions in an overcrowded market, were looking to cut costs at every turn. "Suppliers of everything from carrier bags to the cans of soup that go in them are being squeezed," he said. "It's very aggressive. Every price is being pushed down."

The Telford workers comforted themselves as they prepared for redundancy last week with the thought that the Chinese were not as good as their ex-managers believed. "They weren't much cop when they came over here," said one. "They didn't seem to have an idea what to do."

But BPI is confident that the experiment will work and hints that other British workers will soon find their jobs heading east. "Even after starting up in China, 98 per cent of our production is still here," said Mr Sale. "But if this is successful we might look at other moves. We have to compete."