UPDATE 2-Merck & Co postpones Dutch closures, options open
* To reconsider legal options if no deal by Dec. 31
* Court case postponed to January
* Hundreds had protested closure at parliament
* Options include potential sale (Adds spokeswoman, ministry comments, background)
By Aaron Gray-Block
AMSTERDAM, Sept 2 (Reuters) - U.S. drugmaker Merck & Co (MRK.N) has postponed the closure of some of its Dutch operations while it negotiates with executives and workers on potential alternatives, including a sale of the R&D site.
The last-minute deal announced on Thursday averts a court hearing scheduled for Thursday afternoon, at which employees of the Dutch unit, formerly called Organon, would have attempted to block the closures, which were unveiled in July.
Merck said the sides had agreed to negotiate "jointly in good faith" on alternatives for business development at the Organon sites, taking into account concerns around local employment, knowledge development and Merck's economic needs.
"A lot of options are being considered. We are looking at every serious option that presents itself," company spokeswoman Monique Mols said, adding a potential sale was an option.
"There have been approaches of interest ... We have heard some names, but we cannot comment on that; but there has not been really serious talks because that was not yet possible."
Mols added that all involved parties were hoping to keep a lot of jobs at the Dutch R&D site "in some way or another".
If no deal is reached by Dec. 31, Merck said, the sides would go back to considering their legal options. In the meantime, Thursday's court case has been postponed to January.
'NOT PROPERLY INFORMED'
The Dutch works council, which represents employee interests, argues it has not been properly consulted on the restructuring, but Merck says it informed the council prior to announcing its plans and had met its legal obligations.
Besides the R&D units, Organon also makes women's health products such as the Nuvaring contraceptive, which generated $511 million in sales in 2009, and in January gained European Commission approval for its new fertility treatment Elonva.
Merck has said the plant in the Dutch city Oss, where ingredients for its antipsychotic drug asenapine are also made, remains important for the firm.
Merck said in July it would shut eight research sites, including three in the Netherlands, as part of its restructuring programme after its merger with Schering-Plough. It ultimately plans to cut up to 15,000 jobs worldwide and to save up to $3.5 billion by 2012. [ID:nN08206592]
Merck has not outlined how much it plans to save by the Dutch closures, but the plan was expected to cost 2,175 people their jobs out of a total of 4,500 workers by end-2012.
After an employee protest outside parliament in The Hague, government officials said they would urge Merck to find another solution for Organon.
Dutch Economnic Affairs Minister Maria van der Hoeven welcomed the decision to consider alternatives to a closure. (Additional reporting by Ben Berkowitz; Editing by Michael Shields and Will Waterman)
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