FIFTY landscape workers in South Tyneside face a gloomy Christmas on the dole after their jobs were cut.
Woking-based ISS Facility Services Landscaping, the contractor South Tyneside Council uses to maintain grassed areas, hedges and cemetery grounds, has laid off more than two thirds of its workers in the borough.
A source said the losses mean there are now only about 25 staff working out of the firm’s base at the Bedewell Industrial Park, Hebburn, and that the workforce had been “shell-shocked” at the level of cutbacks.
The cuts come as South Tyneside Council faces up to £20m worth of savings in the current financial year.
The source said: “It’s a terrible time of year to lose your job. It’s a huge reduction in staff and it has left just 25 workers to look after the borough’s ground maintenance needs through the winter.”
ISS managing director Phil Jones said “severe pressure” on the council’s budget made the redundancies inevitable.
He said: “Local authority budgets are under severe pressure and South Tyneside is no exception.
“In line with its proposed budgets for the next three years, we have had to find savings in our contract. We have consulted staff and trade unions at all stages of the process.
“Unfortunately, to achieve the savings, we have had to restructure the way we deliver our services and make a number of redundancies.”
Merv Butler, branch secretary of Unison South Tyneside, which represents the majority of workers, confirmed the 50 job losses.
He said: “We have been in discussions with the company over these redundancies and we are supporting our members and advising them on their rights.”
A spokesman for South Tyneside Council said the size of the ISS workforce fluctuated - with more staff needed in the spring and summer months compared to the winter.
He said: “The council’s grounds maintenance service across the borough is moving towards a more seasonal contract, where the bulk of the work is being delivered over the spring and summer months.
“As part of this seasonal change, ISS has the ability to upsize and downsize the workforce as the needs of the work dictate.”
He added: “As usual, the council will continue to monitor the workforce numbers against the work being completed.
“The council meets regularly with ISS to discuss all relevant maintenance and contractual issues.”
The council’s relationship with ISS has at times been a frosty one.
Last year councillors expressed anger at the level of service provided, even claiming workers had “no pride in their work”.
As a result of these concerns, the company was placed on ‘red alert’, and fines of £500 were imposed over work not seen to meet required standards.
It was not the first time ISS had come under fire.
Early in 2011, a worker was pictured with his feet on a headstone in Jarrow Cemetery, which led to scores of complaints from families to local councillor Steve Harrison.
At about the same time, a grieving family complained after dolomite was found dumped on top of their mother’s grave at Harton Cemetery.
ISS was awarded the council’s grounds maintenance contract in 2005 and it was recently extended for a further five years.