On 11 May, the Victoria Biscuit Works, a biscuit factory in Tollcross in the east end of Glasgow, was earmarked for closure by its owners Pladis. This is a move which puts the jobs, and livelihoods, of hundreds of workers under threat, and represents a flagrant attack upon the working people of Glasgow by the capitalist class.
Pladis is a multinational encompassing four different food manufacturers including United Biscuits. United Biscuits manufactures McVitie’s products, which is the UK’s largest and most enduring biscuit brand. It is these iconic products which this factory produces. McVitie’s was founded in Edinburgh in 1830, but production has gradually moved out of Scotland, such that this is the only McVitie’s factory remaining in the country.
It has become a staple of the local community in Tollcross since its opening in 1925, and is a place where many have been able to find employment. However, these jobs will be lost if the bosses go ahead with their plans to make all 468 of the factory’s employees redundant. Tollcross is already a relatively deprived area in Glasgow’s historically impoverished east-end, and not a place where jobs, well-paying or otherwise, are particularly easy to come by.
This closure will only serve to push more people into poverty and hardship, especially so when combined with various other closures and mass sackings which have already taken place across the city in the last year.
These workers have not exactly been treated like royalty prior to this closure; according to GMB organiser David Hume, the owner’s failure to adequately protect workers from coronavirus all throughout the pandemic has reflected how “they prioritised their profits over the health and wellbeing of their employees, their families, and the local community.”
Unlike other industries hit hard by the pandemic, the biscuit industry has fared relatively well during the coronavirus crisis. In fact, last year Pladis, which is a subsidiary of Turkish conglomerate Yildiz Holdings, reported a 12.1% growth in sales across their top 10 biscuit brands in their Annual Biscuit Review, with 6.6 million more packs of Chocolate Digestives sold than in 2019.
The usual excuse that capitalists use to justify redundancies and closures, that times of economic downturn require them to tighten the belt, is inapplicable in this case. So, what could possibly be the reason for closing this factory?
In his statement addressing it, David Murray, the managing director for Pladis UK & Ireland, said “we must take steps to address excess capacity in the UK. This overcapacity limits our ability to make the right investments in future capabilities to meet the very big changes in our industry.”
‘Overcapacity’ refers to the predicament where a factory produces more than it can sell. Such is the inhuman, topsy turvy reasoning of capitalism — we must destroy productive capacity and jobs precisely because it is so productive. However, a closer examination suggests that this doesn’t really provide an adequate explanation for Pladis’ actions.
Pladis are light on details about this supposed ‘overcapacity’, and all reports suggest that the past year has seen them enjoy continuous growth and stability. Indeed, Murat Ulker, chairman of Pladis and the richest man in Turkey, has seen his personal net worth grow by approximately $2 billion since last April according to Forbes. Their ability to sell products is not at all in jeopardy at this moment.
Typically, the motivation for deindustrialisation such as this has been the opportunity for capitalists to find and exploit cheap labour in poorer countries. In the latter part of the 20th century, the turn towards capitalism and opening up of ex-Stalinist countries such as China, Vietnam and the USSR, along with pro market economic reforms in India, Myanmar and various other Asian nations, saw Western corporations flock to the east in order to exploit these new markets, which was accompanied by massive deindustrialisation in the UK and America.
As these new avenues for production opened up, domestic labour, with its high wages and strong unions, was no longer needed so much by the Western bourgeoisie.
Pladis have been attempting to ‘take McVitie’s global’ for a number of years. A section entitled ‘our opportunities in Europe & SSA’ on their website reveals that they have a business presence in Saudi Arabia, where they “produce a range of products (…) along with a new range of quality affordable products under the McVitie’s brand including digestive bars.”
It goes without saying that Saudi Arabia is hardly a workers’ paradise: the around 10 million migrant workers who form the basis of the economy are, according to Human Rights Watch, regularly subject to “forced labour and/or trafficking, including withholding of passports, wage theft, poor living and working conditions, restrictions on freedom of movement, and physical, emotional and sexual abuse.” However, these conditions are highly favourable to the capitalist class, who are free to exploit these migrants for their labour as much as they please.
The same page on the Pladis website describes their attempts to establish operations in a number of Sub-Saharan African countries, such as Kenya and South Africa, all of which have significantly lower wages, worse living conditions, and weaker labour laws than Scotland.
In light of this, a much more compelling explanation for the closure of the Tollcross factory might be that Pladis are trying to turn their focus more towards projects in these countries where they can extract even greater profits. However, this closure is far from a certainty, and the workers at the factory have already begun fighting back to prevent it.
On the 22nd of May, a crowd of hundreds, composed of workers, locals, trade unionists and politicians, gathered in Tollcross Park outside the factory to protest its closure. GMB Scotland Secretary Gary Smith has pledged that the union will “regroup and (…) fight this closure,” and a petition calling for these jobs to be saved has gained over 50,000 signatures. The group which made this petition, Save Our Jobs Tollcross, have also set up a stall in the Forge Shopping Centre to get more signatures and increase public support for their campaign.
A number of elected representatives, ranging from Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar to SNP MP for Glasgow East David Linden, have offered their support to the McVitie’s workers. Scottish Finance Secretary Kate Forbes recently met with an action group composed of industry and union representatives to discuss the factory’s future, after which she affirmed her “commitment to leave no stone unturned in our efforts to find a viable and sustainable future for the Tollcross site and its workforce.” However, vague statements such as this will continue to ring hollow unless these politicians are willing to take concrete action to save these jobs.
The Tory austerity merchants in Westminster are unlikely to be willing to do anything- indeed UK Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng admitted that he’s “not particularly aware” of the situation in Tollcross. But the Scottish Government could easily step in and bring the factory under public control.
Nationalisation is well within the government’s devolved powers, and such an action would surely be in line with the ‘social-democratic’ ambitions of the SNP. It would rescue these jobs from the anarchy and uncertainty of the market and protect them from destructive greed of the Pladis owners.
Instead of going to the already overflowing pockets of Murat Ulker, profits could be put back into Scotland’s ailing public services. In the event of this nationalisation, no compensation should be paid to Pladis who don’t deserve any taxpayer money after launching such a blatant assault upon their workers.
The Scottish Government — despite their desired image — are very supportive of big business and will not do this unless they are forced into it by mass pressure. The continued mobilisation of the workforce, combined with the radical demand for expropriation, and solidarity from other sections of the labour movement, will be needed to force the government to take these steps. The leadership of the unions must forefront these calls for nationalisation in their attempts to save these jobs.
The workers at the factory are clearly eager to keep these jobs, many of them being locals who have worked there for decades. If the factory were put under the direct control of these workers, it would mean that those who are actually affected by the way the factory is run would be in control.
They could guarantee themselves good wages, safe workplace conditions and safeguard their jobs from the probing hands of capital. For it is the workers themselves who understand best what they need, more than any capitalist or government bureaucrat ever could.
Additionally, this sort of workers’ control can be a vital step in motivating further actions against capitalism. As Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky explained in the Transitional Programme:
“The immediate tasks of workers’ control should be to explain the debits and credits of society (…) to determine the actual share of the national income appropriated by individual capitalists and by the exploiters as a whole; to expose the behind-the-scenes deals and swindles of banks and trusts; finally, to reveal to all members of society that unconscionable squandering of human labour which is the result of capitalist anarchy and the naked pursuit of profits.”
When workers are in control of their own industry under capitalism, they are able to see the absolute inadequacy of the system with their own eyes, and this will only motivate them further to fight against it. These workers can lead the push for a genuinely socialist government in Scotland, which would continue the expropriation of capitalist property.
It is vital that these jobs in Tollcross are saved. The consequences will be disastrous otherwise. The only way to do this in a manner which will guarantee the long-term security of these jobs is through nationalising the factory and placing control of it directly into the hands of the workers themselves. This would prevent any future attempts at closures or redundancies, and further expose workers to the bankruptcy of the capitalist system.