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BI Linecross: Back from the brink

19 June 2013

BI Linecross

BI Linecross is a factory on the outskirts of Cannock, where they make mouldings, mainly for automotive manufacturers. If you’re lucky enough to drive a Jaguar, a Land Rover, a Bentley, or even a JCB, there’s a good chance panels for it have been made by the 120 strong workforce here.

Except it hasn’t actually been BI Linecross very long. The sign over the entrance still reads BI Composites, the name of the firm which was placed into receivership last year, putting 120 jobs on the line.

It’s a long way from the firm’s heyday, and from Cannock’s heyday as a centre of manufacturing. Unite regional officer Caroline reels off a list of local companies who’ve gone over the years, factories stripped and sold, and workers laid off to join an ever shrinking labour market. Fifteen years back, when shop steward Alf joined, there were 450 working on a site that encompassed over three times the current area.

Fibreglass cutter Paul has been nearly 30 years with the firm, and his colleague Stephen longer still. Next to a stack of orange sheets about to become JCB canopies, they tell us how bad morale had been at the end of last year. The future of the firm hung in the balance when it failed, with no buyers on the horizon. Christmas was cancelled for their families, with all the workers wondering how far they might have to stretch their last paycheck. It was a time no-one wants to relive.

Paul and Caroline

Luckily, relief came in the form of a deal with new parent company Linecross, introduced as a potential buyer after they were approached by the union recognised at both firms, Unite. Rather than buying the firm to break it up, Linecross have invested in the run-down buildings and aging machinery. That’s more investment in the last 6 months, Paul tells us, than he’s seen in the last decade.

But this measure of security for the workers has come at a very real personal cost. Wages, which used to be amongst the best in Cannock, had already been steadily whittled away over the last decade, and now will be held down again this year under the new deal with Linecross.

With bills rising on all fronts, the workers are finding it harder and harder to make ends meet – particularly the lowest paid in the company, who aren’t on much more than the minimum wage. But all three we talk to firmly say that it’s a choice they were glad to be able to make. A job is a job in Cannock at the moment.

The workforce is aging as a whole. As the firm has declined over the years, few new people have joined, and it’s been a struggle for people just to keep their jobs. Paul, Stephen and Alf are now all over 50, and are worried that finding work again at their age will be that much harder, if not impossible.

Linecross Chairman David tells us it was a tricky decision to make to buy out the ailing firm, clear its debts and invest enough in it to have a shot at turning its fortunes around. Companies don’t like to take on those kind of risks in the uncertain economic climate, and as a result he feels too many firms are being allowed to go to the wall.

Failing businesses leave creditors out of pocket and reduce work in turn for suppliers who needed those orders – potentially prompting a second wave of closures, and further damage to an area. David sees other governments doing more to encourage their countries’ manufacturers to invest, and worries that without a change of direction from our own government, and a more active industrial policy, Britain will lose much more of its industrial base, maybe never to return.

Unite steward Alf

That’s a sentiment echoed by the workers. Alf tells us about the difficult recent years at the firm, losing staff and losing capacity, from his position as shop steward. The few jobs left in Cannock are now in retail – some in the big box stores now standing on the same ground that years back was part of this factory. Wages are lower, and skilled workers have been unable to find anything using their years of experience. Worse, many people who do have work, his niece amongst them, are trapped part-time on many fewer hours and less regular work than they need to get by.

For now though, the workers here feel they have a little more stability, and seem keen to make the best of this chance, with optimism that things may change in the longer term. We can only wish them luck, and hope that their obvious hard work, dedication and good faith pays off for them.

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