DESPERATE efforts were under way today to try to save meat factory Hall’s of Broxburn after Dutch parent firm Vion announced plans to close it down, with the loss of 1700 jobs.
Workers and businesses have warned of the “devastation” if the closure is confirmed amid fears it could sound the death knell for Broxburn, with many households in the area having more than one family member employed at the plant.
Independent Lothians MSP Margo MacDonald compared the news to a “pit closure”, with local traders saying they feared for their own livelihoods.
If it goes ahesad, the closure would be the biggest blow to the Scottish workforce in more than a decade.
A task force, bringing together the Scottish Government, West Lothian Council, the factory owners, unions and others, met within hours of yesterday’s announcement.
After the meeting in Broxburn, Finance Secretary John Swinney said: “The taskforce agreed that its key focus is maintaining continuity of business at Hall’s of Broxburn and we are entirely committed to that exercise.”
The taskforce is expected to study the company’s financial projections to see what future can be secured for the plant.
Broxburn sisters Bridget Norwood, 46, and Esther Stewart, who have worked at the factory for a combined 35 years, said the whole workforce was in shock. In total, six members of their family work at the site - Esther, her brother, his wife and their daughter, and Bridget’s partner - in various departments including butchery and quality control.
Mrs Stewart, who is also the USDAW union convener at the plant, said: “If the factory was to close, it would have a massive impact because the majority of people working here have family members working at the factory too, so it could mean four jobs being lost out of the one household.
“It would have a big impact right across West Lothian.”
Miss Norwood, 46, a general operator like her sister, added: “We still need to get the orders out to customers, but it will be hard for people to come in and do their job when they’re down in the dumps. People have got mortgages and have maybe booked holidays, but they might not have a job to come back to.”
Tracy Gilbert, USDAW’s area organiser for the site, described the situation as “horrific” and said the union would do all it could to help protect jobs.
“If the factory closes, there will be massive devastation to individuals, families and the wider community,” she said
Hall’s dates back to 1932 and the factory is renowned for the brand’s lorne sausages, Wee Willie Winkies, haggis and black pudding. It employs 1150 permanent and 595 agency staff, and is the major processing facility for Scottish pork, while it claims it makes the world’s best-selling haggis.
Its closure would mean the end of the brand’s pork produce in Scotland, and could mean the end of the Hall’s name.
Yvonne Peden, 25, said: “If I lost my job, I wouldn’t be able to run my car or my house. My mum works at the factory as well, so she’d also lose her job.”
Vion broke the news to staff yesterday morning that it was beginning a 90-day consultation exercise which could result in the factory folding, despite investing heavily in the site over the last four years in an attempt to stem losses, now standing at £79,000 per day.
The problem is understood to be the rising cost of cereal needed to feed the pigs, which mean despite a four per cent rise in pork prices over the past 12 months and strong demand for Quality Assured Scottish pork, it is increasingly difficult to make a profit.
Some workers starting their shifts yesterday heard the news through the media.
Livingston Labour MP Graeme Morrice said the announcement was a bombshell and would bring “hardship to hundreds of families”.
Among those affected is Magda Mackiewicz, 31, who has worked as a general operator for four years. “It’s depressing because me and my boyfriend, brother-in-law and his girlfriend all work here. Me and my boyfriend had plans to buy a house but we will have to give up if the factory closes.”
Just nine months ago, Vion announced plans to create 250 new jobs at Broxburn with a £20 million investment in the site. At the time, First Minister Alex Salmond said the investment meant the plant was safe.
But the firm never drew any of the £1.5m of Scottish Enterprise support made available, and questions are now being asked about how the factory’s fortunes plummeted so quickly.
Linlithgow Labour MP Michael Connarty said: “I want to know what has gone wrong here. It sounds as if the right hand didn’t know what the left hand was doing.”
West Lothian Council leader John McGinty said: “We will be pressing for a clear explanation from Vion and what can be done to preserve the plant and local jobs.”
The latest unemployment rate for West Lothian is 7.1 per cent, slightly below the figure for Scotland as a whole.
Duncan Walker, chief executive of West Lothian Chamber of Commerce, said it would be a major blow if the factory did close, and Linlithgow SNP MSP Fiona Hyslop said everyone had to pull together.
The company was taken over by Grampian Country Food Group in 1998 after a drop in profits, with Vion Food Group taking over in 2008.
Vion UK chairman Peter Barr said: “Every possible step has been taken to secure the future of the business but we are currently losing £79,000 per day at the site, which is unsustainable.
“There is significant over-capacity in the UK meat industry and market conditions are extremely challenging. It’s possible that someone comes up with something we have missed or another dynamic. Someone could come in and feel they could do a better job, so we should go into the consultation with an open mind.”
80 years of history
Hall’s started in 1932 as a Corstorphine butcher’s shop run by founder David Hall, and the company remained family-owned for more than 60 years.
Mr Hall saw the business producing sausage, haggis and black pudding quickly take off. The company moved to Broxburn in the 1960s and went on to win a Royal warrant.
In April 1996 nearly 100 workers were laid off at the site in the wake of the BSE crisis and fluctuating pig prices.
Its time as a family firm ended in 1997 when David’s son, also called David, was replaced as managing director.
The company was taken over by Grampian Country Food Group in 1998, after a drop in profits.
Almost 100 staff were made redundant at the factory in 2000 with the cuts blamed on “increasing pressure” on the pig industry because of an influx of cheap imports from abroad.
In 2006, bosses warned the plant may have to close permanently with a loss of 1000 jobs following a pension dispute which saw 150 workers lose their positions.
Dutch firm Vion Food Group took over the company in 2008.
Traders express fears for future amid predicted exodus of Broxburn workers
AS the devastating news filtered its way around the streets of Broxburn, local residents spoke of their shock, while business owners expressed fears for their own future.
Julie Milburn, below, who owns Julie’s Baby Gifts in East Main Street, said more than half of her customers either worked at Hall’s, or had family who did.
The 48-year-old, who lives in Livingston, said two shops in East Main Street – a florist and a card shop – had already closed in the last six months. She now fears for her own business.
“It would be devastating for the area if the factory closed because a lot of the locals work there,” she said. “It would have a huge impact on local businesses because a lot of our trade comes from workers there and, certainly for us, a lot of our customers just wouldn’t be able to afford things that they’re able to afford at the moment.
“It would affect everybody in the area. There’s businesses closing down at such a rate because of the economic climate, but to lose a substantial number of jobs like that would affect everybody. I think people would move away from Broxburn if the factory closed and, if they did, I would lose a significant amount of trade.
“I was really shocked when I heard the news. If the factory closes, I don’t think we will have the community like we have just now or the shopping area because businesses will not survive.”
Meanwhile, Glenn Lowe, who owns a local butchers, said trade had been suffering over the last few years.
He said: “I have been here since 1982. If the factory closes, it’s bound to affect all the shops in the area. We will just have to wait and see.”
Hall’s of course are well-known for their Wee Willie Winkie sausages. Others produced at the Broxburn site include:
• Scottish beef sausages
• Premium pork sausages
• Sliced black pudding
• Hall’s Haggis – billed as ‘The World’s Favourite’
• The Hall’s Grill pack - two slices of beef lorne sausage, two black puddings and six pork link sausages.
• The Hall’s Breakfast pack – six pork sausages and four slices each of beef lorne, black pudding and fruit pudding.