'What about jobs for life and all that rubbish?'

Andrew Buncombe
Friday 17 March 2000 01:00

In the park opposite the main entrance to the Longbridge car plant, Fred Bannister, white-haired and leaning on a walking stick, stood staring in apparent disbelief.

Though retired, his hands stiff with arthritis, for 31 years, he had worked as a machine- tool setter at the plant. His son-in-law still worked there, while his own son worked on the Land Rover production plant at Solihull. He kept repeating "I can't see them shutting it down", though with no real conviction .

The human investment also at risk of being thrown away in this latest chapter of industrial misery to hit Longbridge emerged from the plant several hours later; workers - men and women, old-timers and apprentices - all wearing grey overalls and expressions that needed little interpreting.

Production had been halted, the BMW managers had cleared off and the workers had been sent home early with orders to come back in the morning. "Angry. We feel angry," said Alan Barber, walking on his own, though speaking for the majority. "They push you, they push you all the time. It's all give from us and take from them."

Tom Swadkins, 38, a married man with two young children, said he wondered whether he would be able to pay his recently arranged mortgage. "The workers here can only do what they are told to do. Come in, do the day's work, earn the money and then go home. The workers are all gutted. They try to put on brave face but at the end of the day they are gutted."

Though the deal to sell the unprofitable parts of Rover had been announced in Munich at 2pm yesterday, it was 4pm before the Birmingham workers were told they were employed by a virtually unknown equity firm based in London's Covent Garden.

While they were angry they were the last to know, they were also doubtful as to whether the new owners, Alchemy Partners, would be able to work any magic. "What do they know about the car industry? If BMW can't turn this place around what chance have they got?" said one worker. Some suggested they would "strip it bare and then get out".

But, while the workers know they have been discarded by BMW - which has decided to keep divisions making the profitable Land Rover and the new Mini - details of their future are far from clear. In particular, while there were endless rumours - some suggesting 50 per cent of the workforce could lose their jobs - there has been no news on redundancies.

All the company would say, in a statement, was that it was "committed to communicate fully with employees". A news release on its web site said the new company was "expected to employ a significant workforce". It all rather smacked of carefully chosen words.

Though this suburb on the southern outskirts of Birmingham would bear the brunt of job losses at Longbridge, the ripple effect would be felt across the West Midlands. Ten thousand workers are employed at the plant, and another 40,000 jobs are estimated indirectly to depend on it.

The company is to give more details today but there was little solace for staff last night. Some at least tried. "I was at the meetings ... There were lots of questions they asked that could not be answered," said the Rev Peter Thomas, a member of the plant's chaplaincy service. "I was just there in case anyone wanted to to vent their anger." It seemed like a thankless task.

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