Hall’s of Broxburn closure fears: John Swinney’s desperate bid to save 1,700 jobs

JOHN Swinney tonight ordered an emergency task force be set up to try to save 1700 jobs, as Scotland’s best known meat factory faces closure in what would be the biggest blow to the nation’s workforce for more than a decade.

The expected closure of Hall’s of Broxburn left shocked staff in tears after the news was broken to them earlier today, and was described as “catastrophic and devastating” for the West Lothian community.

The finance secretary held emergency talks with management at the factory earlier tonight and a task force was established that will include company and union representatives, local politicians, Scottish Enterprise, Scottish Development International, Skills Development Scotland, Job Centre Plus and Quality Meat Scotland.

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The firm’s Dutch owner, Vion, revealed earlier today that the plant is losing £79,000 a day – about £2.4 million a month – and despite recent investments aimed at improving efficiency, it remains heavily in the red.

The closure would be a major blow for Scotland’s farming industry, with 8,000 pigs a week currently being processed at the plant, which makes sausages, black pudding and haggis. It is the biggest pig processor in Scotland.

Vion UK chairman Peter Barr said: “The huge losses being incurred mean we believe we have no alternative. 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 clearly unsustainable.”

The closure will be the biggest single job blow in Scotland since mobile phone giant Motorola shed 3,100 jobs at its Bathgate plant in 2001.

A 90-day consultation has now been launched by Vion.

Mr Swinney described the news as “extremely disappointing” after meeting with company chiefs earlier tonight.

“This plant has faced threats to its future on two previous recent occasions and through efforts involving all interested parties have delivered a positive way forward,” Mr Swinney said.

“I recognise that this will be a particularly worrying time for workers at the plant. The Scottish Government and its partners will do all that we can to support the workforce and local community through this period.”

Speaking after the first meeting of the task force, Mr Swinney said that it had agreed its key focus was “maintaining continuity of business at Hall’s of Broxburn and we are entirely committed to that exercise”. It will next meet on 30 July.

First Minister Alex Salmond told MSPs in September last year that a new centre of excellence was being created at the Broxburn plant that will create 250 new jobs and “safeguard” 1,000 others at the plant.

The plant was bought by Vion Food Group four years ago from Grampian Country Food Group, which had been in financial difficulties for several years. It employs 1,150 permanent and 595 agency staff at the site.

West Lothian Council leader John McGinty said: “It is a shock to hear of the scale for the potential job losses.

“It is devastating for everyone involved. Vion is a major employer in the area and this is undoubtedly a serious blow in what is already an extremely challenging employment market.”

More than 220,000 Scots are currently out of work, more than double the level since the economic crash four years, with the economy still in recession.

Chris Clerkson, 23, who has worked at Hall’s for four years, described how he saw colleagues break down at the news.

He said: “A lot of people were very distressed. I even saw a couple of people have a wee greet. It’s just not real.”

Labour’s Lothians MSP Neil Findlay said: “Last September the First Minister announced that Hall’s would be remaining at Broxburn courtesy of £1.495m from Scottish Enterprise. On that basis I would also ask that the First Minister become personally involved in this awful situation facing the workers at Hall’s.”

Union leaders hit out at the sudden nature of the announcement earlier tonight and said staff were “shocked and angry”.

Stewart Forrest, Usdaw’s deputy Scottish divisional officer, said: “This is absolutely catastrophic news for everyone. Our members are understandably shocked and extremely angry at the announcement.

“The first question we want answered is why the company has waited until this 11th hour before engaging with its employees and their union.

“Usdaw was given no indication of the true seriousness of the situation and that is extremely regrettable and in my view totally unacceptable.”

The Hall’s site was under threat on a number of occasions before Vion took it over in 2008.

Fiona Hyslop, the MSP for nearby Linlithgow, said: “Vion appears to have been unable to resolve this situation due to internal changes within its company and increased demands in production at the Broxburn site, resulting in substantial losses which has led to this situation. The workforce, however should not have to pay the price.”