This has been a truly awful festive period for hundreds of Norwich food manufacturing workers and their families.
Today, Unilever announced they are closing their Norwich plant in 2019. Out of 113 Norwich jobs, 93 will be lost. The remaining 20 will stay – milling mustard seeds in Norwich at a new facility co-run with local farmers. Before Christmas, around 240 Britvic workers were told their jobs would be going within hours of sitting down for their company Christmas lunch.
When you include the impact on local businesses that supply Britvic and Unilever, the damage to jobs here could run into the thousands.
Some people will shrug and say that’s the way of the world now. Others will tell you that there are plenty of other jobs for the sacked workers to go to. But the reality is that hundreds of workers in Norwich have been cast adrift by a government and economic system that has let all of us down again.
I applaud the valiant efforts of the Unions, Norwich City Council, Norfolk County Council and the Local Enterprise Partnership in trying to find an a viable solution to keep these jobs in Norwich.
I can not say the same for this government. A government that has sat on its hands these past few months and in particular Business Secretary Greg Clark and Norwich North Tory MP Chloe Smith. Both have paraded themselves in local media claiming they were “working hard” to “ensure a bright future for this important site” and proudly proclaimed the government was ready to back options to help keep Britvic and Unilever jobs. What did they actually achieve? Nothing. Clark didn’t even have the decency to accept my invitation to come to Norwich and meet with us all here to find a way to keep the jobs in our city.
This government has failed to understand the lessons of the past 35 years that government cannot be a spectator when it comes to industry. No one is asking Greg Clark to ’pick winners’ - simply to support key sectors - like the food and drink manufacturing industry - the way the Scottish govt has with strategic investment in new plant and machinery.
And then we had the Britvic consultation that wasn’t really a proper consultation at all. They’d already started offering redundancy packages a few days into the consultation period. The GMB union representing workers on the site has labelled the consultation “a sham”. Unions say Britvic provided no meaningful evidence for the closure and wouldn’t listen to the alternatives which would have made savings and kept the plant open.
People are sick to death of an economic system where all that seems to matter is how much profits can be maximised. We’ve got an ‘hourglass economy’ of comfortable professionals at the top and millions struggling with poverty wage leisure and retail jobs or chronically insecure work at the bottom. Workers at Britvic and Unilever, were paid decently, had unions to stick up for them and had dignity at work. Now many are faced with the prospect of collecting shopping trolleys in supermarket car parks for the minimum wage or eking out a living in the gig economy. It is heartbreaking.
I’ll be seeking answers yet again in Parliament next week on why this government has failed Norwich and its Britvic/Unilever workers and what it plans to now do support those affected.
It didn’t have to turn out like this and it’s not an inevitability that we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. To everyone today who is angered and saddened at what has happened at Britvic and Unilever I say, this is the day you should join a union if you’re not already in one and get involved in politics to get rid of this government.