A PENSIONS row has deepened after a campaign group alleged an industrial mask maker is hampering ex-workers’ access to financial gain.

The parent firm of 3M, which runs a plant in Newton Aycliffe, County Durham, has been accused of “imposing a policy to deny discretionary pension increases to former employees.”

In a separate twist, the business has also found itself the subject of union ire, amid claims staff are being forced to work over Christmas for the first time in decades after rejecting a pay offer.

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However, the company played down the assertions, telling The Northern Echo “all participants are expected to receive the benefits 3M is committed to provide”, and that its festive rota was reflective of increased demand, praising workers’ “understanding and flexibility” in the process.

The pensions allegations come a week after the Echo reported how the 3M Pensions Action Group believes the business is “dashing pensioners’ expectations” by halting discretionary inflation-linked increases.

Mike Smith, group chairman, said former workers face “real hardship” as the impact of inflation knocks the value of sterling.

He said: “Historically, 3M almost always paid discretionary increases.

“Since 2008, however, no increase has been paid.

“During that period, inflation has reduced the value of the pound by over 20 per cent and former employees, who retired with relatively small pensions, are now facing real hardship.

“Each year since 2008, 3M has given no indication if or when it may pay an increase.

“It is the opinion of the Pensions Action Group’s steering committee that the parent company, the US 3M Corporation, is imposing a policy to deny discretionary pension increases to these former employees.”

The firm has also been criticised by the Unite union, with regional officer Mark Sanderson calling 3M “an early contender for Scrooge boss of the year” over its festive rota.

Mr Sanderson says staff are expected to work for three days, with the change of policy coming after workers rejected a proposed 1.5 per cent pay increase that, through inflation, would mean a pay cut in real terms.

He added: “This is an attempt by management to bully, blackmail and intimidate the workforce to accept a pay offer.

“They need to reverse the decision to cancel the annual Christmas shutdown and dramatically improve the pay offer.”

3M, which makes millions of industrial face masks at Aycliffe to stop workers inhaling dangerous dust and vapours, has responded to both claims.

Referring to pensions, a spokesman said: “Over the years, 3M has focused on satisfying all of its commitments to employees and other stakeholders.

“Part of that includes taking steps intended to ensure the pension fund is in a state of good health for the benefit of its members, including both current and former employees.

“Following significant contributions by 3M over recent years, we are pleased to say the UK pension scheme is currently considered fully funded and all of the participants are expected to receive the benefits 3M is committed to provide.

"When contemplating discretionary increases, we consider many current and future business and economic factors – and we plan to continue with that approach.”

Colin MacLeod, site manager, added its Christmas rota has nothing to do with pay, saying the business is instead seeking to meet customer clamour.

He said: “As a major manufacturer of masks and respirators for workers, including healthcare professionals, in this country and abroad, it is essential we ensure continuity of supply to meet the needs of our customers and, ultimately, protect the health of endusers.

“Current levels of demand are such that we need to have the machines running on the three regular workdays between Christmas and New Year.

“We believe our employees understand this and greatly appreciate their flexibility.”

The issues come after the Echo revealed 3M had placed a protective coatings factory in Northallerton, North Yorkshire, under review after it fell “significantly short of expectations.”

Speaking in June, the company confirmed the base, known for making coatings for steel pipes in the oil, gas, rail and water industries, could close by the middle of next year.

At the time, it said up to 55 staff and three contractors would be affected in any changes, adding a closure would see some product lines stop and others transfer to plants across Europe.