There were fears over the future of thousands of Scottish jobs last night after the firm behind the closure of the Hall’s of Broxburn meat plant announced it is selling up all of its UK food businesses.
About 13,000 workers employed by Dutch giant Vion throughout the UK, including 2,300 in Scotland, now face an anxious few months as buyers are sought for the meat plants that employ them.
Farming leaders immediately said the announcement “sent shockwaves through the industry”, while union chiefs demanded “urgent clarity” on the impact on jobs and raised fresh questions over the Hall’s closure.
However, Vion said it is confident of securing a sale and has had a “strong level” of interest from several parties.
But finance secretary John Swinney last night revealed he had been kept in the dark over the announcement and branded it “extremely disappointing.”
Mr Swinney added: “I recognise that this will be a particularly worrying time for Vion employees.
“The Scottish Government has been involved in protracted dialogue with Vion over the last few months where we have repeatedly asked for reassurance on the future of other plants in Scotland. This information has not been forthcoming.
“Today’s announcement is the first that the Scottish Government has heard of the sale of the other businesses from the
company and we will be engaging with the company to maximise the opportunities for business continuity and provide support, where possible, to employees.”
The firm is selling up to concentrate on its “core markets” in the Netherlands and Germany.
Unite union convenor at Vion Scott Walker said last night: “Unite will be approaching management imminently, both local and national, to get urgent clarity on the security of our jobs.
“We’ve been aware of the speculation surrounding Vion’s future interests for some time now although nothing was confirmed until today – the workforce heard through the same company sources as the media.”
Usdaw national officer John Gorle added: “Vion also has some explaining to do about its recent decision to close Hall’s of Broxburn. Today’s announcement clearly hasn’t been made overnight and it makes the veracity of the consultation process at Hall’s questionable at best.”
The firm says it is confident of selling its pork, red meat and poultry businesses as ongoing viable businesses.
Peter Barr, chairman of Vion UK, said: “We have already started detailed discussions with a number of interested parties, including management, regarding the acquisition of the various parts of the UK business and these are progressing well.
“Interest in the businesses has been strong and we hope to be in a position in the near future to give further details.”
As well as the impact on jobs, Vion is also critical to Scotland’s farming industry, processing much of the country’s red meat, pork and poultry.
Apart from the doomed Hall’s plant, the firm has other key Scottish sites, including the McIntosh Donald plant which processes cattle and lambs in Portlethen, Aberdeenshire, and employs 280 people.
The company also runs a poultry plant in Coupar Angus, which employs about 1,000 people, and a cooked chicken plant in Cambuslang, South Lanarkshire, which has 400 workers. In addition, it operates a pig farming operation near Turriff in Aberdeenshire, which has about 180 workers. A further 50 staff are employed at the firm’s UK head office in Livingston.
Rural affairs secretary Richard Lochhead said: “Clearly, this news will be a concern for Scotland’s farmers, Vion employees and suppliers, particularly coming hard on the heels of the Halls of Broxburn closure.”
President of the National Union of Farmers Scotland, Nigel Miller, said the McIntosh Donald plant at Portlethen is one of the “big five” Scottish plants focusing on the Scotch brand and said it is “crucial” that its future is safeguarded.
Vion announced the closure of the Hall’s of Broxburn plant in October, with the loss of 1,700 jobs, after a 90-day consultation. The Scottish Government had offered to buy over the plant itself, but this was rejected.
The firm pressed ahead with the closure, prompting furious criticism from staff and politicians. The government’s external affairs secretary Fiona Hyslop, the MSP for the area, said Vion had a “lot to answer for.”
The plant is undergoing a phased closure and is scheduled to shut its doors for the last time in February next year.