A small town is stripped of its bones
Factory that has produced the popular Huesitos chocolate bar for decades is to be shut down
Kraft management says Poland plant is more efficient
Ateca and Huesitos are one and the same. This village in the Aragon region has been linked to chocolate ever since the Hueso family opened up a factory here in 1862. In the 1950s, an entrepreneur named Francisco Unzurrunzaga rescued the struggling business, and 1975 marked the creation of the popular chocolate-and-wafer bar known as Huesitos (which translates as “little bones” and is the diminutive of Hueso). It was the beginning of Ateca’s glory days. In the late 1980s, residents closely followed the sale of the company to the Cadbury-Schweppes group, which was in turn taken over by Kraft Foods in 2010.
Things were simple: if the factory did well, then Ateca did well. With its 107 employees, the plant is the soul of this municipality of just 2,200 inhabitants.
That is why last month’s surprise announcement that the Ateca plant will shut down this year with production being relocated to Poland has got the town up in arms. “They are trying to deliver a blow to history and to the DNA of this town,” says an indignant mayor, Fernando Duce, of the Popular Party (PP). Signs protesting the closure hang from the town hall’s façade.
Iñaki Sánchez Gracia, 55, has been working at the factory all his life. Like most workers here, he has held many different posts, including merchandise delivery, the department he works in now. Besides the famous Huesitos — chocolate-covered wafer bars with a chocolate filling — the Ateca plant also makes Tokke chocolates and Respiral hard candy, besides packaging Trident chewing gum. Iñaki, president of the workers’ union, is a blue-collar worker who makes a middle-class salary — an endangered species in Spain.
“This used to be a family business that treated us well,” he says. “There was never any confrontation.”
But in December 2010, the US giant Kraft Foods bought the plant and the proprietary division became known as Mondelez International. Employees never dreamed that the factory would be closing down just two years later. Before this, there had not been so much as a pay cut at the plant.
“On the afternoon of the 24th, the company scheduled an appointment with me for the next day,” Iñaki recalls. “They were being vague about the nature of the meeting. Five minutes before walking in, I found out that they were going to close down the plant. I told them to inform the workers themselves, that I had no mind to do so.”
This union leader says that managers justified the decision on the basis of organization, not economics. “They didn’t want to negotiate pay cuts or labor adjustment plans or early retirements,” he recalls. “An executive who came from Madrid, and whom we didn’t know, told us: ‘Business has no heart’.”
Four other employees sitting next to him nod in agreement. “To them we’re just a line on an Excel spreadsheet,” says Conchi Beltrán, 54, who works at the factory lab. So does her 55-year-old husband. “We’re both being laid off. We have no more future. We’ve been working all our lives just to find that we get no pension and can’t afford tuition for our children. What is this?” he thunders.
The average employee at the factory is 51 years old. They know it will be hard for them to take up the spots the company is offering them at other plants. They all have similar stories to tell about good treatment from their employer in the past, and a great deal of fear now as so many couples lose their jobs simultaneously. The unemployment rate in Spain is over 27 percent.
In recent years, Ateca has witnessed the closure of a textile factory and several small businesses, but nothing has caused such uproar as the shutdown of Huesitos. Even the Bishop of Tarazona sent the workers a note expressing sympathy. Nothing was as deeply rooted in the village as Huesitos, and to make matters worse, this is not even another bankruptcy case — production is simply being moved to Poland (chocolate bars) and the Spanish province of Valladolid (hard candy). A company spokesman who declined to give his name justified the sudden closure without the option of partial layoffs or pay cuts, claiming they would have been “temporary measures for a structural problem.”
“The factory is working at 29 percent of capacity and that is hardly sustainable,” he said. “We are producing fewer tons all the time, while in Poland we have a plant that can put out seven times more than the one at Ateca.” He claims that production fell nearly eight percent in 2012 and that a 21-percent drop is being forecast for this year. The spokesman also said that the company has no separate accounts for the Ateca plant, but that it and the Valladolid factory together turn a profit.
Last November, Mondelez International CEO Tim Cofer told La Vanguardia newspaper that “Spanish plants will remain in place despite the difficult economic situation.”
Mondelez is a leading snacks company, and turnover in Spain alone is around 600 million euros. Its brands include Milka, Suchard, Oreo, Philadelphia, Toblerone, Fontaneda and more. The company employs around 1,900 people in its seven Spanish plants. The spokesman said that the closure of Ateca is “irreversible,” while Mondelez has indicated that it will offer good severance pay: “It will not be a labor adjustment plan with [just] 20 days’ pay per year worked.”
Even if the workers negotiate their conditions, the blow to the village will be tremendous. People who don’t work there themselves have relatives who do. It’s the talk of the town. Protest t-shirts hang from windows. Store fronts sport posters against the closure. Inside Ana Bueno’s candy store, Huesitos take the place of honor on the display shelves. They say that the village used to smell of chocolate when the factory was working at full capacity. And that in the 1940s, the only electricity that people used at home was the excess power given away for free by the factory.
Pilar Urbano, owner of a bar called Goya, takes the reasoning further. “The other day, watching the collapse of that factory in Bangladesh where they make the clothes that get sold here, I thought that we need to buy national products. Huesitos are made here, we’ve grown up with them, and now they’re being taken to Poland,” she says in disbelief.
Many workers still remember Francisco Unzurrunzaga, the man who bought the plant in 1955 and whom everyone refers to as Don Paco.
“He used to work side by side with us, coming up with new sweets. We never had any trouble with him. Things went well for the factory and for the workers,” says Iñaki.
It was Unzurrunzaga who came up with the winning formula of the Huesitos. Now, at age 89, he speaks with some difficulty over the phone. “I don’t know how to tell you, but it wasn’t much of an effort to come up with the Huesito. Hueso was the company’s name and I used the diminutive. The truth is, it all worked out really well.”
Regarding the closure, Unzurrunzaga sounded sad. “I think it’s really wrong. One hundred people are out on their ear. I cannot feel good about that.” He sounds sincere.