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Manchester Evening News
Manchester Evening News
Stephen Topping

"We're losing friends": Shock for a tight-knit workforce as hundreds set for redundancy at meat factory

Disbelief rang around Tameside's Pilgrim plant as another working day came to an end. Almost 550 workers have been put at risk of redundancy at the meat processing factory, which is set to close its doors.

Staff told the Manchester Evening News they received the news at a group meeting yesterday (May 16), when a senior manager from Pilgrim's UK informed them all of the factory's closure, which will follow a 45-day consultation period. Lenoa Eastwood, from Ashton-under-Lyne, has worked at the factory for 23 years.

The 54-year-old said: "It's gutting. It's hundreds of people out of work in Tameside. It's a lot of people all looking for the same sort of work.

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"A lot of people have been here a long time. There are families that work here, it's a whole household that's out of work - husband, wife, kids. It's going to impact this area a lot."

Many of the Pilgrim's workers have known each other for years, or decades, and formed lifelong friendships. Almost all workers who spoke to the M.E.N. following their shift this afternoon (Wednesday) asked to remain anonymous, fearing repercussions for speaking out.

Pilgrim's meat factory in Tameside (MEN Media)

More than 24 hours had passed since the big announcement, and colleagues - still in shock - had spoken about little else. One worker said: "Nobody knew, not even management.

"Some guy came in, set up a load of speakers in the car park, let us all in and basically said 'you're all out of a job in 45 days due to the factory losing money. I've got friends here that have been here for 45 years.

"They don't know anything else. There aren't other places like this round here that we can go to.

Another worker spoke of how the sudden announcement has hit her retirement plans. "I was really shocked, speechless," she said.

"I didn't expect it. I thought they would put us onto short-time, which we've been used to before - foot and mouth was a three-day week. It's 500-odd people. They say 90 can be relocated but you can't just uproot and move. People have got homes here, kids, partners that work elsewhere.

"It's going to be very hard. I've been here 23 years... I'm nearly 62, it's not easy to start again. I'm not sure I want to. I was going to work to 65 and retire. I've got another three years to go and at the moment I can't think straight.

"My husband has got a good job, thank God, but I'm not a kept woman. I've got my independence. I've always earned my own money. I was hoping I could do the last three years, retire and be happy, but where do I go from here?"

She added: "We're losing friends, production lines are like a family. You've worked here day in, day out, for years. It's very upsetting."

The factory has been subject to protest in recent years (MEN Media)

For the many staff looking for work elsewhere, there are concerns about the pay and conditions they could face at other factories. Some workers told the M.E.N. they had 'decent' pay at Pilgrim's, but feared zero-hours contracts and minimum wage elsewhere.

Canteen workers, who are employed by another company, are also preparing to say goodbye to friends as they hope to secure another role elsewhere. "It's really, really upsetting," one said.

Among the sadness and shock, there were also harsh words for the company. One worker said: "We've been f***** over... we're being shafted. They are saying it's the economy, but we managed to get through covid.

"Morale has gone out the window. I love working here and all. The job's s*** but it's the people that make it. I've met some really nice people. It's the end of an era."

Other workers suggested the closure had been 'coming for a long time'. "I'm resigned to it," one told the M.E.N. "I knew what was going to be said before they said it. I'm not surprised.

"It's a big blow for Ashton. It's only a small-ish place. I've got good friends here, lifelong friends some of them."

"I'm getting that old it might not be much of an issue," another worker added. "But I feel for the younger ones who have kids, a mortgage, families."

Pilgrim’s UK says the redundancies are necessary to continue its business. Rachel Baldwin, Vice President of Human Resources at Pilgrim’s UK, said: "The decision to propose the closure of our Ashton site has not been taken lightly and we have made every effort to explore alternative options.

A key part of our work to return to growth includes ensuring we fully optimise our operational footprint and the age and location of Ashton within a densely populated area means that there is no feasible opportunity to modernise or grow the site. As a result, these proposals are unfortunately essential to ensure a sustainable future for our team members across the UK."

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