UPDATE: Novartis embroiled in row over non-union workers’ redundancy pay as 550 job losses confirmed

Novartis, Wimblehurst Road, Horsham
Novartis, Wimblehurst Road, Horsham

SOME 150 workers at one of Horsham’s most prestigious employers - where major job losses were announced earlier this year - are claiming that their proposed redundancy payments are unfair.

Global drug giant Novartis shocked the local community in March when it announced that 550 jobs were to be removed by 2013 in a streamlining exercise - significantly reducing the scale of its operations in Horsham.

A 90-day ‘consultation’ with workers at the Wimblehurst Road site has now ended but 150 workers have filed an official grievance against the Swiss company, according to one employee.

Novartis has always been regarded as an exceptionally good employer investing both in the welfare of staff and the local community, a point echoed by the concerned worker.

But he said their complaint relates to Novartis UK’s handling of the redundancies, in particular, the disparity between payouts to Horsham workers and their unionised colleagues in Liverpool.

Novartis UK is planning to make 190 people redundant at its Speke site in Liverpool. The UNITE union has aggressively negotiated a severance package in line with industry standards but worth roughly twice the value per person when compared with the Horsham settlement.

Workers in Horsham, some with as many as 35 years long-service, say they had their severance pay ‘guidelines’ changed 12-months prior to March’s announcement.

Because the ‘guidelines’ do not form part of the staff’s terms and conditions the company was not legally obliged to consult its work force.

Employees only found out about the changes to their redundancy settlement at the start of Novartis’ three-month consultation back in April, 2011.

The company is proposing to pay the town’s departing work force the equivalent of a two week salary for every year of employment, where as union staff in Speke will get four weeks base rate

The official grievance lodge with management alleged that the firm breached its own employee handbook and discriminated against non-union workers

Novartis admitted in internal papers that the company had breached its own equal opportunities policy by allowing the union disparity.

But the outcome of the grievance showed the company did not uphold the complaints and did not accept that there had been any discrimination, in a “legal sense or otherwise”.

The workers at Horsham are still awaiting the outcome of an appeal against the company’s decision not to uphold their grievance.

Sitting in the County Times office the worker said: “The company makes great claims about how it treats its staff and everybody accepted the company line about the consultation. Novartis are a very large company and they had a very good year in 2010, particularly in Horsham.”

He added: “There is a general feeling that loyal people have not been looked after with the biggest element of that being the new severance package.

“The job losses came as a surprise, Novartis had a very good year in 2010 and the Horsham site especially, 2010 was one of its best years in terms of production and efficiency.

“Up until the redundancy process I would have been the first person to say what a good company Novartis is to work for, how they treat their staff, how they interact with the local community. Novartis are a very good company to work for but this process has left a very bitter taste in people’s mouths. This process has changed my thinking in that capacity.

Visibly angry he went on: “”There is a huge amount of frustration and bitterness between employee and employer.

“A phrase I’m hearing a huge amount around the Horsham site is ‘it doesn’t have to be this way’.

“We are disillusioned.

“My personal thought is that this is an arbitrary move to save money, nothing more, it is a calculate and contrived move and could be a sign of worse to come.

“Novartis have been a very good employer but they are leaving Horsham in a very cut-price fashion. The affect on the Horsham community will be huge, there is a big part of the community with linked to the company.

“Reducing people’s severance money in this way will mean there is less money in the local economy, workers will have less money available and time to re-train and it will force people out of the area.

Asked whether he regrets blowing the whistle he said: “it’s not something I have told people about because frankly people are too scared to stick their head up.

“But people have always said that Novartis are a company that will ‘always look after their staff’, just not now when we need them to most.”

All these points were put to Novartis so that they could respond to them in detail. However, the statement they issued as we went to press said:

“Following the announcement of proposals to restructure operations at its Horsham site in West Sussex in March, Novartis UK can confirm that collective consultation on those proposals has been completed, during which all counter proposals made by employee representatives were discussed and considered. The final proposals are now with the UK Board for consideration and approval and a further communication will be issued once the UK Board has made its decision.

“In the event that the proposals are approved by the UK Board, those employees whose roles are affected by the approved proposals will be supported by Novartis through the process, with the identification of opportunities for redeployment or alternative positions and, where necessary, outplacement services among other assistance.

“For some employees, the proposals will lead to redundancy and all redundant employees will be offered a severance package that will be enhanced from that required by statute.”

For more on this story pick up a copy of next week’s County Times.