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The imminent closure of Birmingham's famous HP Sauce factory highlights just how vulnerable many local jobs are. All too often, our major companies are run from abroad and the profits we generate flow outwards. Barbara Panvel suggests a radical solution.

HP Sauce

Unemployment has been rising since 2003, with large numbers of jobs lost in firms which are export dependent. 1200 Massey Ferguson jobs went in Coventry, 1300 from Alstom, 1050 from Wedgwood, then Royal Doulton, MG Rover and the HP factories closed - though all continue to manufacture abroad. Unemployment is continuing to escalate with 500 firms bankrupted nationwide in the first quarter of this year. Cllr Reg Corns reported 2000 job losses in the West Midlands in June and by October unemployment was the highest for six years.

For stability and long-term survival, we need firms that are not dependent on export sales and affected by changes in demand or currency values. Many small businesses and worker co-operatives are in this category.

Mary Holmes, who updated the worker co-operative database in 2002 wrote: “In a world awash with lyrical corporate mission statements about ‘excellence', ‘service' and ‘ethical dimensions' worker co-ops actually have their values at the centre of the business not just as add-on extras”.

The 1976 Common Ownership Act ensured a sounder structure than earlier enterprises, like the short-lived Triumph Meriden co-operative; capital is held in trust and profits are reinvested in the firm and the local community. Ernest Bader worked to bring this act into being. He gave his own company to his workers and his son Godric continues to promote the concept of trusteeship: enterprise controlled democratically and managed in trust for the health and welfare of society as a whole.

In the West Midlands there are fewer worker co-ops than in many other parts of the country. They include Barhale, a civil engineering firm based in Walsall, Sage Wholefoods Co-op in Moseley, The Foster Care Co-operative in Malvern, Badger, a GP Emergency Rota giving out of hours service in Birmingham & District, the Urban Gardening Co-op, providing housing association services in Handsworth and the Asian Funeral Service in Tipton.

Many people in firms which are threatened with closure could consider setting up their own worker co-operative or setting up an employee buyout like the miners of the Tower Colliery in South Wales. Co-operative and Community Finance, a revolving fund set up under the 1976 Act, offers loans without security to people with a good business plan.

In the Birmingham Mail this week Jon Birkin wrote: “I suggest the HP workers set up alone, brand-stretch with something like HiP Sauce . . .”

It could be done - and we could decide to buy it!

Could the people of Birmingham realistically hope to buy HP and make their own sauce? Have we got the money, the skills, and the leadership? Leave a comment on our messageboard.

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