“Ask the boss … Oh no, there’s no more bosses”: in a tea factory near Marseille, employees are proud of their atypical organization, eight years after taking over production from the Anglo-Dutch giant Unilever who had closed the site to relocate it. In the large hangar located in Gémenos (Bouches-du-Rhône), they monitor and operate the machines that produce hundreds of tea bags and infusions per minute. Some still wear “Fralib” flocked green blouses, the former name of their factory, when it was still run by the multinational. The boxes parade on conveyor belts, some marked with the logos of brands of major French distributors and others with the number “1336”, the name chosen by the employees for their own brand. “In +1336+ there is number 13”, that of the department of Bouches-du-Rhône, explains to AFP Fabrice Caillol, “and that corresponds to the 1,336 days of fight against Unilever”, continues the technician, entered at Fralib in 1994. After the announcement in 2010 by the group of the relocation of the activity to Poland, he took part in the long legal battle, alongside around 75 employees, to keep the premises and the machines and resume an activity. in the form of a cooperative. This has been done since 2014, with the creation of Scop-Ti. That year, “an agreement was signed by all parties, with the payment of nearly 20 million euros” for its launch, Unilever recalled in a statement to AFP. “We are no longer numbers, we feel human”, assures Fabrice Caillol, who says he is “proud” of the new production based on natural and French products (thyme from Provence, lime blossom from the Baronnies, etc.), to except tea, from Asia. Their journey has inspired other initiatives, such as the takeover of the Pilpa ice cream factory in Carcassonne (Aude) by its employees under the La Belle Aude brand, or the “Après M”, a former McDonald’s in Marseille transformed by a former employee in a back-to-work restaurant. But the ex-Fralib did not succeed on one of their main demands: the takeover of the original Marseille brand L’Eléphant, whose sachets they produced under the reign of Unilever. The agri-food group sold it at the end of 2021 to the investment fund CVC Capital Partners, along with its entire tea division. “At this time when we talk a lot about short circuits, it would make sense for them to communicate on a relocation” to Gémenos, slips Olivier Leberquier, chairman of the board of directors of Scop-Ti, “but not boss”, specifies he. – Declining activity – His appeal to the investment fund is not innocent: this former maintenance technician and CGT delegate must now face, like any company manager, the difficulties of his factory, which produces much less than before. From 3,000 tons of tea bags each year with Unilever, Scop-Ti has grown to 220 tons. And if the ex-Fralib chose to keep the workers who wanted to (46 out of the 182 employees at the factory), those who retired could not all be replaced and there are now 37. The choice to keep all the employees at all costs was exceptional and very difficult to maintain,” said Fatima Bellaredj, general delegate of the general confederation of Scop, which represents cooperatives at the national level. She explains that in this kind of situation, leaving with a reduced team is less risky because you have to “rebuild yourself in a new, very different market”. After six years of growth, which resulted in first profits in 2020, Scop-Ti is now facing a decline in activity, linked in particular to inflation. “People make choices: in a family, if you have to choose between a box of tea and steak to feed the kids, tea comes after…”, explains Mr. Leberquier. Rising energy and packaging prices are also weighing on production costs, so Scop-Ti must increase its prices. “This year, we would have needed a 30% increase but we cut back on our margins to ask 13%” from distributors, he says. In 2022, the company should however generate a little profit because the Aix-Marseille metropolis, which had bought the premises ten years ago to allow the cooperative project, must sell them at the end of January to a group of mutuals, which will divide the rent by two. “Now the goal is for it to last […]says Fabrice Caillol, for our children and our grandchildren, that we can create work”. cdc/iw/vk
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