NINE HUNDRED North-East call centre workers are facing redundancy because of the growing popularity of websites, it was claimed yesterday.

Littlewoods owner The Shop Direct Group announced yesterday it was planning to shut its Sunderland call centre, because more customers were shopping online.

But the GMB union last night dismissed the firm’s claim, pointing out that staff at the centre had regularly been working overtime to keep up with demand.

The announcement came on a bleak day for job losses in the week Britain officially came out of recession.

Shop Direct, formerly Littlewoods Home Shopping, announced it was also planning to close call centres in Burnley and Newtown, Mid Wales, bringing the total number of possible job losses to 1,500.

Elsewhere yesterday, drugs company AstraZeneca, which has a number of UK operations, said it was to cut a further 8,000 jobs internationally on top of 12,600 posts already axed.

Car manufactuer Toyota also warned unions it had a “headcount surplus” of 750 at its main UK factory, near Derby, raising fears of major job losses.

Railway maintenance firm Babcock Rail yesterday said it would cut 300 jobs in Scotland and the North of England, including a ‘‘slimmed down’’ management team.

Shop Direct, which also runs, Great Universal and Kays, said that only 19 million calls were taken through its call centres last year, compared with 33 million less than four years ago, because more customers were shopping online.

It said that 60 per cent of its business was now done online, with a peak of 85 per cent of sales during the recent Christmas period, leaving it with more space in its contact centres than it needed to handle the declining call volumes.

But GMB Northern regional officer Mick Hopper said: “We struggle to accept that, when staff were working overtime right up to Christmas, and even afterwards.”

Mr Hopper said yesterday’s announcement had come out of the blue for workers.

He said: “You usually see the signs with these things when people are not working overtime and they are sitting twiddling their thumbs, but at Sunderland they have been busy all the way through.”

Littlewoods has had an operation at the site since the Fifties and Mr Hopper said it was heartbreaking to see staff in tears after being told the news yesterday morning.

A 90-day consultation has started with staff and the site could close by the end of April.

Shop Direct chief executive Mark Newton-Jones said: “We recognise that this is a very difficult time for those teams affected by the proposed contact centre closures. We are working closely with the trade unions to help staff through the consultation process and support them in finding future employment.

“Over the past five years, the proportion of our online sales has grown from 18 per cent to account for more than 60 per cent of our business today, resulting in excess capacity and space in our contact centres.

“We are a strong and growing business and we need to adapt to reflect the way our customers choose to shop with us.”

The company added that up to 350 new jobs could be created at its remaining four call centres, with some of those potentially going to workers in Sunderland.