The union’s 250 members at plants Wissington near King’s Lynn, Cantley near Great Yarmouth, Bury St Edmonds and Newark in Nottinghamshire have rejected a 3.5% pay offer from the company.
Unite is demanding a pay rise in line with retail price inflation of 5% plus 0.5%, for the year from April 2011.
However, British Sugar (part of AB Sugar Group, a division of Associated British Foods) said that its initial pay offer was “fair and reasonable within the current economic conditions”.
The company said that members of the GMB Union have already accepted the offer, which also includes an increase in the contractual notice period from one week to one month for both employees and the company.
But Unite regional officer Tony Ellingford told Foodmanufacture.co.uk that the Union was the checking names and employment details of members, in preparation for a ballot within the next four to six weeks.
He said that he was “genuinely sad” that relations with management had gone downhill to the extent that a ballot was in the offing. There had been no strike action at British Sugar in 30 years, he added.
Ellingford said: “British Sugar is a highly profitable company, and despite its complaints that the sugar beet crop was hit by the bad weather during the winter, the company is well able to afford a decent pay rise.”
Rising petrol prices
Unite said members had rejected the pay offer as it was well below inflation at a time when household expenses were soaring.
With poor public transport links in the area, the union argued, British Sugar employees had to drive to work, and were hard-pressed by rising petrol costs in particular.
British Sugar said in a statement that it had undertaken all necessary steps to mitigate any disruption to its four processing factories and the delivery of products to customers.
A leading supplier to UK and Irish food and beverage markets, British Sugar produces more than 1m tonnes of sugar per year from 7m tonnes of sugar beet. It is the sole processor the UK's sugar beet crop.