Minister’s pledge to turkey workers

Everything possible will be done to get financial help for Bernard Matthews workers laid off in the wake of the bird flu outbreak, environment minister Ben Bradshaw promised last night.

Everything possible will be done to get financial help for Bernard Matthews workers laid off in the wake of the bird flu outbreak, environment minister Ben Bradshaw promised last night.

He was meeting union leaders to hear more about the plight of 130 workers at the Great Witchingham factory who are currently out of work.

And he promised the Transport and General Workers Union that everything would be done to allow them to claim benefits as quickly as possible.

The company has laid off 130 workers for a four-week period starting yesterday, blaming “the H5N1 outbreak and the continuing uncertainty that has resulted in the subsequent reduction in the company's sales”.

It has warned that a further 400 to 500 workers may have to be laid off in the wake of the bird flu outbreak at Holton, near Halesworth which has led to a 40pc drop in its sales.

Miles Hubbard, regional industrial organiser for the T&G, and national organiser Chris Kaufman asked for help for the workers who were laid off with a day's notice.

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Mr Hubbard said: “It was very frank and open, very constructive. We emphasised strongly the need for the workers at Bernard Matthews not to be destitute as a result of this. He is going to write to (work and pensions secretary) John Hutton with a view to expediting the benefits process in Norwich, Yarmouth, Dereham, Thetford, where these people are concentrated.”

He also asked for compensation payments to be made to workers, as has happened in Spain and Italy during bird flu outbreaks, but Mr Bradshaw did not make a commitment. The union is due to meet with Treasury officials in the next few days.

Sales of Bernard Matthews products are being monitored “on an almost daily basis” and will determine how many jobs will stay in the region.

Mr Hubbard added that it was a difficult situation for the workers who do not know what their future will be. Four weeks is the maximum time they can be laid off without claiming redundancy.

“It is extremely hard. These are low paid workers, they do not have massive savings. It is going to be devastating for them.”

But Mr Hubbard praised Bernard Matthews for its honesty about the situation, saying: “The company has been nothing but open.”

New figures were released yesterday showing that turkey sales across Britain fell 30pc after the bird flu outbreak, while chicken fell 7pc. Loss of consumer confidence in turkey and chicken has not just affected Bernard Matthews but poultry producers in general.

Yesterday, the government granted planning permission for temporary works needed by farmers to protect from bird flu.

Landowners will be allowed to build a shelter with a ground area of up to 465 sq m or extend an existing building by up to 50pc, but will have to apply for planning permission if they want to keep it for more than a year.

At the moment, all poultry within 3km of Holton must be kept inside and poultry in a 2,000 sq km area, including much of east Suffolk and south-east Norfolk has to be kept separate from wild birds.

The restrictions will apply until at least the second week in March.