Turkey workers count cost of bird flu

Things still look bleak for Bernard Matthews, nearly two months after bird flu hit one of the company's farms. Europe's biggest turkey producer said last night that sales "have not yet started to significantly increase" as it laid off a further 49 staff.

Things still look bleak for Bernard Matthews, nearly two months after bird flu hit one of the company's farms.

Europe's biggest turkey producer said last night that sales "have not yet started to significantly increase" as it laid off a further 49 staff.

And the farm at Holton, near Halesworth, is still lying empty after 160,000 turkeys were slaughtered to stop the spread of the virulent H5N1 virus.

Though the factory next door is up and running, Holton and its sister factory at Great Witchingham are running at far less than capacity because consumers are still turning away from its products.

A total of 277 staff have now been laid off from the Witchingham and Holton factories, though seven were taken back earlier this month. Fourteen staff have just been laid off from Holton, and a further 35 will be laid off from Witchingham with effect from tomorrow.

The news comes at a time when there were hopes that workers would have been taken back on as sales increased. Instead, they seem to have barely recovered from their slump of 40pc - despite a £7m campaign to restore confidence.

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The campaign, launched earlier this month with full-page newspaper adverts signed by 76-year-old Bernard Matthews himself, is still in its early stages. The next phase will include new products and healthier versions of existing favourites.

A company spokesman said yesterday: "Bernard Matthews' overall product sales have levelled off but have not yet started to significantly increase. The company remains focussed on boosting consumer confidence, which would positively impact upon product sales and limit the number of job losses."

Jonathan Banks, of retail analysts Neilsen, said that turkey sales in general, worth £5m a week, were taking much longer than expected to recover. He said: "Immediately after the outbreak, turkey sales dropped by about 45pc versus the previous year. They are now starting to come back a bit. The latest week we have sales for, which is the week ending March 17, sales were down 24pc so that is an improvement, though it is still a few million pounds down."

Bernard Matthews' sales had taken an even bigger blow, Mr Banks said, adding: "Bernard Matthews were saying that sales were down by 40pc, and that still seems to be the picture we are getting."

And he said that consumers in this region were shunning turkey to an even greater extent - sales dropped by half in the eastern region after the outbreak, and are still down 26pc.

Mr Banks said: "In one way it is understandable, because the story has had greater magnitude for people in the region.

"But in another you would expect them to understand that they cannot catch bird flu from eating turkey.

"If there are no further scare stories, you would expect sales to be back up to their pre scare levels in about a month."

Most of those former employees without work are struggling to make ends meet and a few have decided to go back to Portugal.

The first to be laid off - 130 workers from Witchingham who were told they were being laid off for four weeks - have now been out of work for over a month.

Staff are entitled to make a claim for redundancy four weeks after being laid off, but few have done so as most have been with the company for less than two years and will receive no redundancy payments. If they are still laid off after three months, then Bernard Matthews must make them redundant.

Elisa Pinto, equalities officer from the Keystone Development Trust, said: "They are finding it quite difficult at the moment. A few of them have been coming here to see if there are any courses they can do to help them get other jobs."

Miles Hubbard, regional industrial organiser for the Transport and General Workers' Union, said: "We are encouraging then to stay on lay off and in the meantime look for other employment and to go on benefits, which most already have. If the company takes them back, then they haven't lost anything, whereas if they take redundancy then they have lost any chance of getting their jobs back."

The Bernard Matthews' spokesman said that those who applied for redundancy would have it processed quickly. He added: "Bernard Matthews, in consultation with the union, will action all eligible redundancy requests received by staff who have been laid off for over four weeks without delay."

Meanwhile the company's 4,000 staff in the region are hoping the £7m advertising campaign will be money well spent.