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Last Updated: Monday, 22 August 2005, 18:36 GMT 19:36 UK
'Surreal setting' for caterers' protest
By Alex Kleiderman
BBC News

Tony Woodley
Union leaders respected Sikh customs by wearing head scarves
They have spent much of the last week on a picket line outside Gate Gourmet's plant at Heathrow Airport.

On a rainy Monday afternoon more than 200 of the 670 sacked workers from the in-flight catering firm briefly re-located their activities to a Sikh temple in nearby Southall.

The catering staff, many of whom are of Indian origin, were sacked by Gate Gourmet in a dispute over working practices.

The company now says it will be forced into administration if negotiations over a contract with British Airways fails.

The sacked workers sat on the floor of a colourful function room - some with young children - to listen to messages of support and fresh calls for reinstatement at a protest meeting organised by their trade union.

The General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union, Tony Woodley, observing Sikh custom by donning a head scarf, said it was a "surreal setting" for a dispute which was very "surreal".

Testing time

"There is no person in this room who has done anything wrong," he said.

Mr Woodley told the meeting he was doing all he could to reach a compromise.

The sacked workers also heard from Brendan Barber, general secretary of the TUC, and Ann Keen, the Labour MP for Brentford and Isleworth.

Mr Barber said: "The eyes of the trade union movement are on this dispute. The answer cannot be mass sackings, but sitting down to settle issues and manage change by agreement."

Workers said they left the meeting with a renewed sense of optimism.

I have bills to pay and a mortgage, so I may not be left with any choice
Ferdinand Babaran
Sacked Gate Gourmet worker

But some said a protracted dispute could test their will - and their wallets.

"I'm hoping this will all be resolved and we will get our jobs back," said Richard Quao, 44, a driver at the Gate Gourmet site for the past eight years.

He said he expected working conditions to change for the better if an agreement could be reached.

Mr Quao, a father-of-five, said if he did not get his job back, he would have to "do what I can to survive", saying his only alternative would be short-term agency jobs when he needed a constant income.

Ferdinand Babaran, Richard Quao
Mr Babaran and Mr Quao fear they may be forced to seek new jobs

Ferdinand Babaran, 49, a loader, said he was buoyed by the presence of local politicians at the meeting. But, like his fellow strikers, he expressed concern he might be forced to take a job elsewhere if the dispute goes on too long.

"It depends on how long this takes, but I cannot stay like this for more than a month. I have bills to pay and a mortgage, so I may not be left with any choice," he said.

Making plans

Others were more direct in their responses.

Bhamra, 53, was sacked by Gate Gourmet after six years at the plant, along with his wife, an employee since 1997.

"I'll go back if I get my job restored, but I cannot see myself staying long," he said.

The university student son of two other sacked workers came to the meeting with his parents to offer support.

"They are helping to fund my studies. I might now have to go and get a job myself to see me through," he said.

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