British small businesses are shedding jobs at the fastest rate in 17 years, the country's biggest employers' organisation said in a report out on Saturday.
The Confederation of British Industry said employment, new orders and output among manufacturers in the three months to January all fell at the fastest rate since the early 1990s.
In a poll of almost 500 small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), the CBI found that 38 per cent reduced their workforce during the last quarter, while just seven percent expanded theirs as demand for British-made goods slumped.
The resulting balance of minus 31 per cent represented the steepest quarterly fall in employment since January 1992.
SMEs expected the next quarter to be even tougher, the survey found.
"The jobs picture among smaller manufacturers has deteriorated markedly since last July in the face of rapidly declining demand for UK-made goods at home and abroad," said Russel Griggs, chairman of the CBI's SME council.
"Firms are steeling themselves for a very difficult few months, with output and orders expected to fall at a record pace in the next quarter. As a result, job losses are expected to accelerate among SMEs.
"This survey closed before the government's measures to kick-start lending across the economy were announced and we hope these will soon begin to make it easier for firms struggling to access the credit they need to go about their day-to-day business.
"Only the availability of credit will help stem the tide of job losses."
A spokesman for the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform said: "We appreciate the very serious difficulties that small and medium businesses are facing.
"We are providing real help including working capital and loan guarantees securing more than 20 billion pounds (29 billion dollars, 22.5 billion euros) in bank lending, helping businesses manage their tax bills and action to encourage the prompt payment of bills.
"We will continue to do all we can to help employers survive the downturn, retain staff and emerge from it stronger."