A QUIET market town in Leicestershire was rocked last week by the announcement of 900 job cuts. Ashby de la Zouch is known on the tourist trail for its medieval castle, used for a battle scene in the 19th century novelist Walter Scott's book Ivanhoe. But one of the town's biggest employers, United Biscuits, put Ashby in the news for another reason after announcing its McVitie's factory will close. The news has devastated the workers.
They organised their whole lives on the basis of having secure jobs. They know that in Ashby, like so many other small towns around Britain, there are no other decent jobs available. This is just one factory out of hundreds that are closing as British manufacturing hits its biggest slump since the recession of 1991.
Socialist Worker talked to some of the United Biscuits workers and local people in Ashby about what the closure would mean to them. Dave was taking a short breather from his job as a burner, keeping the ovens running. He told Socialist Worker, 'They called this plant a flagship - it's more like the Titanic. They say they have to shut it because they can't expand the factory, but there's plenty of unused land and space at the back. It's the suits. As long as they get rich they don't care about anyone else. There's talk of relocating us, but we can't just move around the country. Me and my girlfriend have been working here 38 years between us.'
Mark describes himself as a 'grease monkey', responsible for maintaining the machines in the factory. He said, 'I am gutted. Everyone said there would always be a factory here. There has been a biscuit factory here since the 1930s. We thought we were secure. They always told us that this plant is profitable. I have been here for 18 years. Round here you can't get another job for anything like the same money. Since the pits shut, it's mostly agency jobs. There is a real community feeling round here. We live and work together - that will be finished.'
Chris remembered the moment he was told about the closure: 'I was stunned. It took two days to sink in. I still feel like it's not real. The company's excuses just don't ring true. They want to shut the place down for maximum profits.'
Another worker said, 'When the managing director broke the news to us, a lot of women starting crying. 'Within about ten minutes the lives of hundreds of people had been torn apart.' The workers are members of the Usdaw union.
Ed Leech is an Usdaw steward in the United Biscuits plant. He told Socialist Worker, 'We are incredibly disappointed with this decision. This is one of the more profitable parts of the company, and people here have shown they are flexible and committed. But we are facing up to 900 job losses. The nature of the work here isn't exactly pleasant, but the community atmosphere keeps people here. It will be very hard to find equivalent jobs in the area. Lots of people have been here since school. They never thought they would have to look for another job, do interviews and all that stuff.'
United Biscuits told its workers not to talk to the press. Some of the names used have been changed.
Closure will mean that town crumbles
'IT'S A big company. They don't care about people at all - they only care about their bank balances.' That comment from a woman shopping in Ashby town centre last Saturday summed up the mood across the town. United Biscuits is a huge multinational firm, the fourth largest biscuit company in the world.
It makes McVitie's biscuits, Jaffa Cakes, Hula Hoops and KP snacks. Its sales were worth £1.3 billion last year - an increase of 3.1 percent on 2001. Its business in Britain alone boasts sales worth around £300 million. But it will wreck the lives of a whole community just to increase those profits even further.
Annette Waring and Mags Shuttleworth told Socialist Worker, 'If they close the factory it will make people round here poorer still. And it's not just the biscuit factory - there are lots of other places shutting. It's not going to make life any better for anyone, is it?' Also in the shopping centre was Chris, who works at the factory packing biscuits.
'It was devastating news. Everyone's livelihood round here is connected to that factory. I have worked there for 20 years. It is the only thing I have ever known. It's the young ones I feel sorry for. What are they going to have left?' Pensioner Anne Pickering lives on a large council estate near Ashby. She told Socialist Worker, 'Shutting the factory is terrible. People travel to the factory from as far away as Derby. They will all be unemployed too. There will soon be nothing left in Ashby except a few offices, betting shops and pubs.'
Mr Patel runs the newsagent on the council estate. He and one of his customers told Socialist Worker, 'There used to be a pit down the road - Snibton. We call it Snibby. But now it is a discovery park for schoolkids to visit. I know a family where the two of them work at McVitie's. Now they will both be out of work. The plant was making money. It seems so illogical.'
Signs that boom is going bust
MORE WORKERS in various different industries are facing the misery of losing their jobs. Boots wants to sack around 1,000 workers, the MyTravel company has announced 700 job cuts, and the car components firm KTH Wales announced 240 job cuts. Some 42,000 workers in manufacturing could get chucked out of work by April this year, according to a report last month by the bosses' CBI.
Bank of England deputy governor Mervyn King said last week that the prospect of war on Iraq had increased uncertainty in the British economy. Even without this, the outlook for the economy has become gloomier over the last three months, he said.
The Bank of England's sudden interest rate cut, the first reduction in 15 months, was a sign of the increased worry that Britain could be heading for recession. The Financial Times commented last week that there are 'alarming parallels' between the recession in the early 1990s and the state of the economy today. In the 1990s unemployment doubled from 1.5 million to three million. Unemployment is around 1.5 million today.
At the worst point, in 1991, one in 130 people lost their homes. Today economists are warning that Britain could be heading for its third recession in five years. The number of companies going bankrupt jumped by 9 percent last year, its highest level in eight years.
Yet chancellor Gordon Brown still claims New Labour has beaten the cycle of 'boom and bust'. New Labour boasts that the official unemployment figures are low. The government bullies and harasses anyone who is out of work.
Ministers assured workers that jobs in high tech industries would replace the old industries and factories. But some workers are finding the job centres only offer part time work with short term contracts at the level of the minimum wage. Families and whole communities are paying the price.
Ministers just shrug their shoulders. But the free market that New Labour worships means the misery of unemployment for many, and millions more living in fear of their future.