Jobs axe looms at Bernard Matthews

FEARS are growing for the future of jobs at the bird flu-hit farm in Suffolk after Bernard Matthews announced it was set to lay off hundreds of workers.

FEARS are growing for the future of jobs at the bird flu-hit farm in Suffolk after Bernard Matthews announced it was set to lay off hundreds of workers.

Around 130 employees will be stood down from today in the wake of plummeting sales after the outbreak of the H5N1 strain of the virus in Suffolk.

The Transport and General Workers' Union (T&G) revealed the axe would fall at the firm's Great Witchingham site, in Norfolk.

But the firm could lay off a further 400 to 500 staff - and concern is mounting that workers at the Holton site, near Halesworth, could be included.

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Last night, Bernard Matthews refused to specify where the cuts could hit in the future, in the interests of staff confidentiality - but T&G said it thought the Holton site was a “possibility”.

It came as Environment Secretary David Miliband told the Commons yesterday that there was a “continual risk” of bird flu in the UK.

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But he said the earliest time the bird flu restriction zones in Suffolk could be lifted was the second week of March - provided there were no further outbreaks or suspect cases in the area.

Union officials called on the Government to give compensation to the workers and to the industry as it recovers.

A spokesman for Bernard Matthews said it had met with the T&G yesterday , to discuss the impact of the H5N1 outbreak and the continuing uncertainty that has led to a reduction in sales.

“It was confirmed that sales had dropped by 40% and as a result the company regrettably proposed to layoff 130 employees with effect from tomorrow, Tuesday February 20,” the spokesman said.

“It was also confirmed that, dependent upon future sales, further layoffs of between 400-500 employees could not be ruled out.

“This was a very difficult decision to make but under the current circumstances it was the only option available following the drop in product sales.

“We are also doing everything we can to limit the number of job losses and we are working hard to restore consumer confidence.”

He added the T&G agreed to the layoff proposal and both parties would “review the situation regularly”.

The T&G said 130 employees would be laid off at the processing plant in Great Witchingham for 20 days from today.

They will receive a one off payment of £100 each from the company as well as some statutory payments, the union said.

A spokeswoman added that she understood there would be around 500 jobs lost in total.

“Our understanding is that the jobs they are looking at in the next few weeks could include Holton,” she added.

Mr Miliband made no mention of the lay offs when he gave an update to MPs of developments since the outbreak at the Suffolk site was diagnosed as H5N1 earlier this month.

He told the Commons: “The expert advice available to me is that there is a constant, low risk of bird flu to the UK and higher risk during migration season.

“There can be no guarantee against further outbreaks. In fact, the only guarantee is that there is a continual risk.”

The Environment Secretary said he was determined lessons would be learned following the outbreak - including all aspects of the domestic and international regulatory regime.

Mr Miliband said, since the cull of 159,000 turkeys at the farm, tests had been completed on 12 dead wild birds and results were negative. Tests had also been completed on poultry samples from 21 premises in the protection zone and in all cases there was no evidence of infection.

“The experts say that a period of two weeks from an outbreak is the time of greatest risk, but it is vital that we do not in any way relax our guard.”

Bernard Matthews has 57 farms in Norfolk, Suffolk and Lincolnshire and employs around 7,000 workers worldwide.

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