Anger and uncertainty for British steelworkers in eye of crisis

31st March 2016, Comments 0 comments

As smoke rises from the blast furnaces of the steelworks that employ thousands in the coastal Welsh town of Port Talbot, there is little outward sign of trouble.

Workers cycle home from their shifts in the spring weather, and the only sign of anything untoward is a cluster of television crews.

But beneath the surface all is far from well after Indian owner Tata Steel announced plans to sell its assets in Britain

The announcement could prove a critical blow to Britain's once world-leading steel industry, which has been hit by a wave of layoffs and closures as producers struggle against high energy costs and plunging prices caused by a chronic global oversupply of steel.

"It wasn't totally unexpected but it was still a shock," said Alan Coombs, a representative of the Community trade union.

"I didn't think that they would be so direct in saying that they wanted to put the UK steel concern up for sale."

Tata's plans to sell its British assets include Port Talbot and works in Scunthorpe and Rotherham in England, which they say are being particularly hit by cheap steel from China.

The group had already announced hundreds of jobs would go at Port Talbot, but the decision to sell puts some 15,000 jobs at risk -- the bulk of those employed in Britain's dwindling steel industry.

The Conservative government of David Cameron called crisis talks in response and the business minister flew back early from a trade trip to Australia as unions called for state help for the sector.

The Port Talbot factory, a major Welsh employer and once a cutting-edge plant, employs 4,000 people and many more indirectly.

The owner of the cafe across from the plant says the impact of the industry's decline will hit the local economy hard.

"It's not just the steel workers... I think it will wipe out south Wales," she said.

- 'Save the steel industry' -

Behind the calm exterior, the feeling among workers is "trepidation, confusion... anger" according to Mark Turner, a steelworker and representative of the Unite union.

"People within this workplace want to know, have they got a future, can they pay their mortgages," Turner said. "They're having to put their life on hold just in case of bad news."

The crisis has provoked anger against the British government, with critics drawing comparisons with the assistance given to the banks following the 2008 economic crisis to ask why the steel industry shouldn't get help.

There were even calls for business secretary Sajid Javid to resign after it emerged he took his daughter with him on the Australia trade trip as the Tata company board met to decide the future of its British interests in Mumbai.

For Coombs, the union representative, blame does not lie with the factory's Indian owners.

"It's hard to blame Tata with the investment they put in over the years," Coombs said.

"There is a responsibility that's got to lay at the feet of the Westminster government because they haven't supported our industry for a long period of time."

London-based magazine The Economist argued in an analysis that Britain's historical dominance of steel manufacturing was long gone and that the government should resist demands for a bailout.

"The state's energy should now be concentrated not on propping up a waning business but on helping steelworkers move onward and upward," it wrote.

"Spending to keep the plant itself in business would just prolong the inevitable."

But Coombs insists the industry has a future and that the government should provide "for a limited period, a bit of support".

"I'm convinced we can get a buyer and we can be positive and we can move forward," Coombs said.

Daniel Helson, a 20-year-old coke oven labourer, insists that the government should go further and protect the industry that is the lifeblood of the town where he was born and bred.

"Everyone knows each other outside of work. It's devastating," Helson said.

"I think we'll have to nationalise it. It has to become British Steel again. It has to be British made for British people."


© 2016 AFP

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