European law has prompted Northern Foods to introduce continental-style works councils at its 18 subsidiaries.
The Hull-based producer is to set up a forum at each of its constituent companies. This goes far beyond the statutory minimum of an international works council for the group set out by the European Works Council directive, which is extended to cover UK staff from this week.
The Hull-based firm's chairman is Lord Haskins, a key business adviser to Tony Blair. There is some irony in the move as Blair led the opposition to the European Commission's plan for compulsory works councils for all employers with 50 staff or more.
Group personnel director Mike Morgan denied that Northern Foods' move shows that forcing a company to have staff forums is good for the business.
"There is a world of difference between a company with a clear view as to how it should move a business forward and one with an external law forcing everyone to do the same," he said.
The plans build on the company's long-standing commitment to staff consultation and have not been influenced by the commission's proposals, he said.
Northern Foods employs 22,000, nearly all of whom work in the UK, with 1,400 in Ireland and about 100 in the Netherlands.
Morgan added that the development is due partly to growing awareness of the importance of "soft" business practices such as honesty in communication. The group also plans to introduce staff attitude surveys to see if communication improves.
The recognised unions are the Transport & General, the Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union, retail union Usdaw, the GMB and the Irish union Siptu.
European Works Councils directive
• Under the current law, firms with at least 1,000 staff, and 150 in each of two or more EU countries, must set up a consultation forum if the staff request one.
• From 15 January, UK employees will be included. They were not covered before because of the Social Chapter opt-out under the previous government.
By Philip Whiteley