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Thursday, 21 February, 2002, 09:51 GMT
Ford's Dagenham: RIP or reincarnation?
Cars made at Ford over the last 71 years
Ford's Dagenham plant boasts a vintage history
by BBC News Online's Emma Clark

Early on Wednesday afternoon the last Ford Fiesta rolled off the assembly line in Dagenham after 71 years of production.

Hours before workers who have been at the plant for more than 20 years stood and cried.

Rajinder Kumar-Mehta, a former troubleshooter at the plant
Rajinder (right) and a friend were feeling sad
"Today was my last day," said 45-year old Rajinder Kumar-Mehta, a troubleshooter.

"I have been here for 24 and a half years. It was very upsetting."

Workers left Dagenham's assembly plant in sombre groups of two or three during a wet and windy afternoon.

Most were saddened by the closure of car production at the plant, while some were angry.

"They are forcing us out the door," said one man, who had been at Ford for more than 35 years.

A vision for the future

In another area of the plant, however, Ford's managers were keen to stress that Dagenham will continue to be a "centre of excellence" for the production of diesel engines.

Mike Harvey, manager of the Dagenham engine plant
Mr Harvey: Better skills will come to the area
Mike Harvey, a veteran of 38 years and manager of the diesel engine plant, talked of a prosperous future and the regeneration of Dagenham.

"It is clearly a very sad day with the closure of the vehicle operations, but if you look at what is happening with the engine operations, it will give a better future for employees," he said.

"It will also bring better skills into the area."

The new diesel engine plant is set to employ 5,000 people by 2004 and is receiving 400m in investment from the company.

Problems with morale?

About 400 of Dagenham's remaining 1,100 car production employees have transferred to the engine plant, or other Ford sites.


We are working together to create a new Dagenham

Mike Harvey
Ford
Most others have walked off with handsome pay-offs - up to 50,000 in some cases - or early retirement.

Ford is also proud of the fact that there have been no forced redundancies, but admits there may be problems with morale for those who remain behind.

A tree in blossom in front of Dagenham's lake
Could spring blossom be a sign of regeneration?
"It is only natural that there will be a reflection back on the old times," said Mr Harvey.

"But you can see the transition of the site, you can see the new buildings going up. People can physically see that change and can clearly see the future.

"We are working together to create a new Dagenham."

Disillusion

On the shop floor, however, employees were not feeling so confident.

One worker quipped to BBC News Online: "You'll be back in 12 months when that engine plant closes down."

The construction of a new 'clean room' engine assembly hall
A new engine assembly hall is being built
Mr Kumar-Mehta added: "They have decided to build cars in Europe. Why would they want to build engines here? They are giving us a slow poisoning."

The workers left behind with jobs intact were also worried.

"They've promised us jobs until 2005," said Graham, who will keep his position at the plant.

"But morale is down and there is a lot of uncertainty about the future... Ford should have done more to save the car plant."

Nostalgia

The same workers recall better days at Dagenham.

The workers' signatures on one of the last Ford Fiestas to be made at Dagenham
Workers signed one of the last Ford Fiestas
"Since [former chief executive] Jacques Nasser there has been an emphasis on shareholder value at the expense of the individual," explained Graham.

"It has deteriorated over the last four or five years. Before there was camaraderie and a lot of loyalty," he said, before adding wistfully, "It's a shame it wasn't two-way."

Graham remembers only too well how Ford once promised its workers that Dagenham would continue to make the Fiesta.

Management divide

Talking to the men - there are very few women at Dagenham - you also pick up on hints of a deeper malaise.

Andy Bahatt, who has worked for Ford for 20 years, dismissed a question about the need to close Dagenham down because of over-capacity with: "Oh that's just management talk."

Mr Kumar-Mehta is more explicit. "I blame higher management for shutting down the plant."

He also talks of inefficiency and explains how his managers failed to order enough crashpads and steering columns for the last Fiestas being produced at the plant.

"We should have finished yesterday but they hadn't ordered enough parts," he said, adding that 60 cars are still in the paint shop unfinished.

He also admits that some of his colleagues often pulled sickies, rather than turn up for work.

A 'hard decision'

Jeff Body, manager of vehicle operations and the sixth-longest serving Ford employee at Dagenham, defends the strategy of closing down car production at the plant.

A building on Ford's Dagenham site
Jeff Body: Investment was not feasible
"[It was] a hard decision and it was made correctly in my view. Investment in such an old plant is not a feasible proposition."

He was also keen to emphasise that the atmosphere at the assembly line was "not a wake".

"The mood is something else, there is a real buzz." Certainly some workers were happy with their pay-offs.

Mr Body's memories of Dagenham are also kinder. "I remember the camaraderie of people. There has been stability and friendship over many years."

Regeneration

Ford boasts of many urban and environmental projects to regenerate the site.

New trees at Dagenham
New trees have been planted
There is a shiny, new educational campus, trees have been planted and an on-site lake restored.

But the real question for Dagenham's remaining workers is whether this "new era" will keep them in employment.

And even if it does, it seems the company will have a tough time convincing a sceptical workforce that its promises mean business - this time.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
Rajinder Kumar-Mehta, retiring employee
"I am really feeling very bad, even though I am 45 and I'm retiring today"
Mike Harvey, manager of the diesel engine plant
"It was clearly seen that there was a very good opportunity for a good future here"
Jeff Body, vehicle operations manager
"I feel sad and some nostalgia for sure, it's the end of an era"
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