Factory fortnight – for and against

For decades, factory workers took their annual holiday during "factory fortnight" and coach firms would run trips to the seaside.

For decades, factory workers took their annual holiday during "factory fortnight" and coach firms would run trips to the seaside. Rebekah Ashby reports on a declining tradition and asks whether it's still necessary for North-East manufacturers to halt production every summer.

The trouble with writing a feature on the pros and cons of factory fortnight during factory fortnight is that anyone who knows anything about factory fortnight is on . . . factory fortnight.

Company phones are answered by security guards, union leaders take their holiday to coincide with the factories and voicemails kick in with the all-too-familiar "I am now on leave until August 7".

Manufacturers argue that closing down in the last week in July and first week in August is vital to improve capacity, allow machinery to be maintained and give their staff time off during the school holidays.

Meanwhile, others say they no longer take the traditional holiday because stronger competition from cheaper overseas competitors means they are a slave to customer demand.

Phil McMenemy, HR director of flow management company Flowserve, which has a service and repair operation in Newcastle and employs 5,000 people across Europe, says he has witnessed a decline in the factory fortnight across Europe over the last six years.

He says: "The factory fortnight has died out of fashion in the UK and it's pretty much the same story across Europe.

"I arrived in Germany this morning and I asked the HR manager here and they said the last time they had it here was 10 years ago. In the last six years it's been very limited.

"None of our businesses across Europe have a closure across the summer period anymore, they may over Christmas, but the traditional summer factory fortnight no longer exists.

"The need to satisfy the customer has taken over the benefit of having a factory closure from an operations point of view and popularity from the workforce's point of view.

"Employees prefer flexibility when it comes to when they take their holiday but, as a business, they prefer to keep things going because customer demand is constant and they need to keep production going.

"In my experience factory fortnight is dying out in Europe and in the North-East apart from with the traditional engineering companies."

William Cook - which employs 250 people in Stanhope, County Durham, making steel castings - shuts down for five weeks of the year and says this allows it to plan production and is vital for machinery maintenance.

The company shuts down for a week in May, two weeks in the summer, a week in October and another week over Christmas, with 170 of its 210 staff on leave.

Managing director Phil Kite says: "It allows us to plan production at a constant rate over a 46-week period without the risk of a shortage of employees in every department.

"It also allows maintenance to have a clear run and to do a thorough maintenance programme while the machines are off.

"The added benefit of shutdown is it allows staff to take holidays with their family and children. If we didn't shut down we couldn't allow our staff to be off at the same time and obviously school holidays are the most popular time for taking holiday.

"At our plant the machinery is running most of the time, so it means they can do maintenance that they can't necessarily do when they are all running.

"It also means there's no shortage of skills on site for the rest of the year because everybody is there."

During shutdown, around 40 staff remain at work in the services department so customers are still getting the contact they want.

Mr Kite says: "We also have a degree of flexibility so if employees do need to take holiday at other times then we try to allow for that so I suppose the staff get the best of both worlds."

A "considerable number" of William Cook's suppliers at home and abroad close down in the summer and it says it poses little problem because everyone knows and plans around it. We plan over, in effect, 46 working weeks so if it was abolished, in certain areas, it would reduce our capacity.

"As a result, we would end up having to take on more people potentially as we would have to make up those hours so it would add more cost to the business."

Meanwhile, replica football shirt company Toffs says it doesn't "do" factory fortnight and that the factories it outsources work to must follow suit.

Director Alan Finch, who set up the Gateshead company with wife Michele(correct), employs 30 staff.

He says: "A few years ago I would find that I would run into the same problems every summer during factory fortnight, whereby one of the factories I was using closed down. It was absolutely ridiculous because they had closed the factory with half of my stock in it!

"The way production works in the clothing industry is that to get up to 1,000 garments a week it can take four weeks for the process to kick in from a standing start.

"So they would close down for factory fortnight with half my stuff in it and then take three weeks to get back up to speed and to get my production up to speed. I just said `I can't work with you. We have done it for years and it's a bit archaic and if you want us to give you work then you are going to have to think about it for next summer'.

"When I was getting the staff in to set up my own manufacturing unit a few years ago and they asked if we had factory fortnight and I said `no, we never close'.

"My philosophy is that not everybody wants to go away at the same time anyway. What if they are going to a wedding, or want to book holiday for later in the year? To the factories I work with now I say `I don't do this factory fortnight nonsense and I can't give you continuous work if I can't rely on continuous supply'.

"Constant production makes us more efficient. We have orders from our football clubs already placed and there's no way we could just shut and the staff understand that. I think if you pay them more than the minimum wage and treat them better then the staff will work for you when it's busy and they understand it's for the good of the business."

Alan Hall, director of the northern association of the Engineering Employers Federation, says the region's manufacturers need the shut down period and that there is still lots of support to retain it.

He says: "It fits in with the school holidays so you don't cause the upset of taking kids out when they should be attending school.

"The general holiday entitlement is five weeks a year so people can take these two weeks and then holiday at Easter or Christmas - it encourages staff to take a short break or city break at other times of the year.

"It gives staff flexibility because you have people taking less days out at other times of the year rather than losing staff at the same time.

"The manufacturers would say we do need it because when you have an operation that has to operate at 70% capacity for three or four months of the summer season, it's hard to bear.

"It's not impossible but it would be much harder, so from a manufacturing point of view there's a strong case to retain it."

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer