Staff at Essar UK’s Stanlow refinery in Ellesmere Port are being balloted for industrial action in a row over pensions.

Unite, the country’s largest union, started balloting over 350 of its members who are members of the Essar final salary pension scheme on Tuesday 30 May, in a consultative ballot for industrial action. The ballot will close on Friday 9 June.

Depending on the outcome, Unite will proceed to a full industrial action ballot immediately.

The go-ahead for the consultative ballot was supported by 100% of Unite members who attended two meetings on Monday 22 May.

The dispute is about the company’s decision to increase members’ contributions to the final salary pension scheme following a pension consultation exercise.

Unite convenor Paul Robinson said: “Our members have made it clear that the proposals put forward by Stanlow to increase the pension contribution rate for workers are unacceptable.

“Stanlow has been extremely profitable for the past few years posting a profit after tax of £168m in 2016. The company can easily afford the increase in pension costs. During the pension consultation a senior finance manager admitted the increase being passed onto the employees was ‘a drop in the ocean’ for the company.

“It is 35 years since the last industrial action at Stanlow and industrial relations have been excellent for many years. We are now only seven months away from our next major shutdown so we hope this can be settled through negotiation before any unnecessary disruption is caused.”

Unite regional officer Alison Spencer-Scragg said: “Throughout the consultation process the need to pass on these costs to the employees has not been demonstrated.

“Unite is calling for Stanlow to withdraw its proposals, if the company wants to avoid potential industrial action.”

A spokesman for Essar UK said: “Essar Oil UK has undertaken an extensive formal consultation process with all relevant stakeholders in its generous defined benefit pension scheme regarding proposed changes in contributions. The consultation followed the latest statutory actuarial valuation of the scheme, which indicated that some extra cost was required to maintain the health of the scheme.

“Essar Oil UK makes a considerable contribution to the scheme already. It believes the most appropriate way to manage additional costs is for the major part to be met through an increased company contribution and further lump sum payments by the company, together with an increase in member contributions.

“Following the consultation, this decision has been communicated to all the relevant stakeholders in the defined benefit pension scheme.”