Dewhirst closure shock

SUNDERLAND was today hit by more jobs misery, after clothing firm Dewhirst announced plans to close its Leechmere ladieswear factory where 390 people are employed.

There are claims that work is being switched to Morocco, but a Dewhirst spokesman simply said it was being transferred to other company sites.

The blow comes as Sunderland is fighting to keep the 400-job Federal-Mogul piston ring factory open at North Hylton Road.

It also comes in the same week as fears have been expressed that the city may have lost the potential for thousands of office jobs at the former Vaux brewery site, with the announcement that Tesco has bought it.

Tesco is saying nothing about its plans but it has already expressed interest in a 400-job store.

Dewhirst issued a statement saying it "regrettably announced the proposed closure of its Leechmere factory".

Marks & Spencer is a major customer, but the company made no reference to it in the statement, which said: "This is a direct result of the continued consumer pressure on prices that has led to insufficient profitable business being available to maintain our UK manufacturing at current levels."

The company spokesman said "retail deflation" had been a key factor, with the public buying cheaper products in the high street and fierce competition.

As well as the 390 jobs being hit at Leechmere, a further 45 are facing the axe at the group's Ashington factory.

Dewhirst says: "Where practical, employees will be offered alternative employment at other sites within the group".

The Leechmere factory has been in Sunderland for about 20 years. Dewhirst still has factories at Pennywell and Hendon in Sunderland, and at Ashington, employing a total of 2,000 people.

Two years ago Dewhirst closed its three Peterlee factories with the loss of 850 jobs.

The news of the proposed Leechmere closure broke as Sunderland MPs, council leader Colin Anderson, and union representatives met administrators at Federal-Mogul Sunderland Ltd, who are trying to sell the factory as a going concern to prevent it being wound down.

The news of the proposed Leechmere closure broke as Sunderland MPs, council leader Colin Anderson, and union representatives met administrators at Federal-Mogul Sunderland Ltd, who are trying to sell the factory as a going concern to prevent it being wound down.

They heard that 15 expressions of interest had been received, which have until March 8 to be firmed up, but Sunderland North MP Bill Etherington said it would be wrong to build up people's hopes.

After hearing of the Dewhirst announcement, he said: "It's bad news getting worse. Despite all the good work being done bringing jobs into the area it's like taking one step forward and two back."

Workers' fears about their redundancy entitlement were raised and the administrators said they would be looking into the matter.

AEEU union official Mel Barras said: "Now it's a waiting game to see who is interested by March 8."