Workers at four British Sugar factories in eastern England are to be balloted on industrial action after rejecting a 3.5% pay offer.

The dispute involves some 250 British Sugar employees at Bury St Edmunds, Cantley, Newark and Wissington.

Unite, the country’s largest union, will ballot members within the next month on whether to take strike action or industrial action short of a strike.

The union is seeking a pay deal equal to Retail Price Index (RPI) inflation – currently running at 5% – plus 0.5% for the year to April 2012.

Its members include engineers and production staff.

Unite regional officer Tony Ellingford said British Sugar was a highly profitable company that could afford the pay increase.

“Despite their complaints that the sugar beet crop was hit by the bad weather during the winter, they are well able to afford a decent pay rise.”

Members rejected the 3.5% offer because it was well below the current rate of inflation, said Mr Ellingford.

Workers were particularly hard pressed by ever-rising petrol costs and increasing cost of living, he added.

“Household and energy bills are soaring – and in rural East Anglia with poor public transport links, employees have to use their cars to get to work.”

Mr Ellingford said union representatives were keen to sit down with management to reach a fair and equitable agreement.

A British Sugar spokesman said the company had been in active pay negotiations with its unionised employees since March 2011.

“We have worked extremely hard with the trade unions to secure an offer that we firmly believe is fair and reasonable within the current economic conditions, and is above average pay awards in the external market place.”

Members of the GMB Union had accepted the pay offer, the spokesman said. But members of the Unite Union had opted to conduct a ballot to vote on industrial action.

“We await the outcome,” said the spokesman. “British Sugar has undertaken all necessary steps to mitigate any disruption to our four processing factories and the delivery of our products to our customers.

“The dispute comes weeks after the company announced a £4/t increase in the beet price paid to growers for the 2012 crop.

The price is based on a new formula introduced last year, taking into account rising costs, the upturn in wheat prices and exchange rate fluctuations.

British Sugar also plans to open its factories for processing earlier this year. The company hopes to accept beet from mid-September.