Trade union bosses were due to meet prime minister Tony Blair, as Food Manufacture went to press, to highlight the plight of workers facing redundancy following a swathe of job cuts in the food industry in York.
The meeting, which was scheduled for November 1 at the House of Commons, was also expected to be attended by York MP Hugh Bayley and Yorkshire Forward chairman Tom Riordan as well as employees from British Sugar, Nestlé Rowntree and Norwich Union, which have all announced swingeing job cuts in recent weeks.
Nestlé planned to axe 645 jobs at its York factory and transfer production to other sites. The GMB union was working on counter proposals outlining commercially viable ways to keep production of Smarties and other products in York, said the GMB regional organiser John Kirk, who represents workers at Nestlé and British Sugar.
However, the union had struggled to present Nestlé with a good economic case to keep production of Black Magic and Dairy Box chocolates in York, added Kirk: "We haven't come up with a viable alternative [to making them in the Czech Republic and Spain]."
There was still a likelihood that Nestlé workers abroad would refuse to do work transferred from the UK, according to Kirk. "We've spoken to union leaders representing staff at the factory in Germany [where Nestlé plans to make Smarties] and they won't take the work on unless we release it," he said. "The workforce there is heavily unionised, and transferring and installing equipment from York without co-operation from staff will be difficult."
Kirk added: "What we would like to see is Tony Blair take on board some of the issues and give us a response, hopefully to address the continued exodus of British manufacturers taking products abroad."
He welcomed moves by Nestlé to suspend plans to terminate existing terms and conditions of employment for the remaining workers at York. "Consultation on this will continue, with the aim of having balanced, sensible and mutually acceptable terms and conditions and an implementation plan by the end of this year."
Nestlé said a £20M investment in the part of the York factory it is retaining showed its commitment to the long-term future of its confectionery production in York, which will continue to make KitKats, Aeros, Milkybars, Yorkies and Polos. The rest of the site will be sold for redevelopment.