BMW early on Monday confirmed weekend newspaper reports it would axe weekend working at its MINI Plant Oxford here in the UK, with the loss of 850 temporary workers. The plant union said the way the cuts had been announced was “disgraceful”.

“Mini Plant Oxford will be bringing in a new shift pattern in response to continuing volatile market conditions,” BMW said in a statement.

“As of Monday 2 March the plant will go from a three-shift to two-shift pattern, operating five days per week instead of the current seven.

“The company regrets that this change will result in the release of around 850 agency workers from the business. A number of agency employees will be retained.”

Permanent BMW workers on the weekend shift will be transferred to one of the weekday shifts.

“While Mini has been weathering the economic downturn, it is not immune from the challenges of the current situation,” BMW added. “Against this backdrop the company felt that a review of its shift patterns was necessary. This decision has not been taken lightly. The plant’s union representatives have, of course, been involved in the discussions.”

Mini sales were down 34.5% to 10,120 worldwide in January though this can be partly attributed to the absence of the convertible model, dropped in mid-2008. A new version is being launched now. The brand’s sales actually rose 4.3% to a record 232,425 deliveries in 2008, though December sales dropped 27.8% to 15,010.

Unite union joint general secretary Tony Woodley said: “The manner in which these cuts were announced today was disgraceful.  It is tough enough for workers in those car companies who have seen their market collapse in recent months, but BMW makes a top-selling product in the Mini and owed it to their staff to treat them better.

“Sacking an entire shift like this, and targeting agency workers who have no rights to redundancy pay, is blatant opportunism on BMW’s part and nothing short of scandalous.

“BMW’s parent company couldn’t attempt this in Germany because it would be illegal to do so. It is a disgrace, therefore, that workers in this country can be so casually thrown to the dole.

“We will be seeking to meet with the company as soon as possible to fight back against these needless cuts. We will also be keeping up the pressure on our government to do more to protect jobs in this country.  We’ve been warning since last autumn that they need to do more, and do more strategically including funding short-term working, or there will be a jobs carnage in our car industry.”

The Mini plant is closed for a week from today and BMW has also said it has 150 surplus workers at its Mini pressings plant in Swindon who will be offered a transfer to Oxford, the BBC reported.

BMW had said that all staff at the factory, including remaining agency workers, would be paid their basic wages during the closure.

However, many agency workers told the BBC they were unclear what the future held after being told the weekend shift had been axed.

One worker said he had been told to leave after four years at the plant and that he was likely to get no payout.

“It’s bad news for everybody. There’s no work any more for the weekend shift. No-one knows about the future plans,” he said.

Another agency worker told the broadcaster he felt like a “second class” employee compared to the permanent staff.

“It’s a disgrace,” he said. “I’ve worked here for three-and-a-half years and now I’m being sacked for no reason. I’ve been used.”

The Mini plant’s 4,500 staff had returned to work on 5 January after an extended four-week Christmas holiday.

In December, 300 agency staff were told there would be no more work for them at the plant after the Christmas holiday.

Today’s news is the latest in a steady lengthening line of auto plant closures and redundancies announced  in the UK.

Honda has closed its plant in Swindon for four months between February and May; sportscar maker Aston Martin had an extended Christmas shutdown and 600 redundancies and began a temporary three-day week in January; Bentley worked a three-day week in October and took a longer Christmas break, is closing its Crewe plant for seven weeks from the beginning of March and has made 220 staff redundant while cutting pay 10%; GM’s Vauxhall unit had an extended Christmas closure and 40-day shutdown; Jaguar Land Rover has had a series of one-day shutdowns and production cuts since late 2008 and plans 450 redundancies; Nissan had a two-week shutdown late last year and 1,200 redundancies; and Toyota has suspended a night shift and is talking with workers about more cuts from 1 April.