Take Away The Furnace, but Anger Still Burns Hot

The Port Talbot Steelworks owner, Tata Steel, an Indian-owned company, is planning to sack 2,800 workers when it replaces coal burning furnaces with electric arc furnaces (EAFs) that are more eco-friendly than traditional blast furnaces writes Harvey John. The decision has put thousands of jobs at risk and threatens further economic disparity and poverty in the town.

The town of Port Talbot depends upon the steelworks, which have been present since the town’s foundation in 1901. It has been a large part of the reason for Wales’ economic wealth, with the steelworks being the largest plant in Europe at one point. For generations the works have delivered economic prosperity to Port Talbot. This began to change in 1988 when the steelworks, which had become part of British Steel in 1967, were sold into private ownership, initially to Corus, until it was acquired by Tata in 2007. 

Port Talbot’s steelworks produce around 4.5 million tonnes of steal each year and, according to research carried out by Cardiff University, “the total economic impact of Tata was £3.2 billion in Wales per year.”

Tata has recently made the decision to transfer from the traditional coal-powered blast furnaces to electric arc furnaces, ostensibly to lower its carbon emissions, saying that: “This plan is intended to reverse more than a decade of losses and transition from the legacy blast furnaces to a more sustainable, green steel business,” and has even managed to secure a £500,000,000 investment from the UK government to pay for the overhaul.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has stated his support for the decision to finance the overhaul, stating his government had saved five-thousand jobs. Sunak also insisted there would be protections in place to ensure workers at the steel works would be able to transfer into other jobs. 

Sunak was recently challenged on his support by Labour MP for Rotherham, Sarah Champion. Champion, whose constituents also rely on steelworks for employment, stated that neither she nor her constituents desired to see the UK government spend money on making workers redundant. 

Sunak responded with this statement: “I know this is an anxious time for steelworkers in South Wales, but we are committed to working with the steel sector to secure a positive and sustainable future.” Tata, whose website has this on their main page, ‘‘World leaders in sustainable steel. Innovating for tomorrow, making a positive impact today,” issued a statement backing the Prime Minister that promised to offer ‘comprehensive support packages’ to help workers ‘train and find new jobs’.

What Sunak failed to mention is that the new greener technology only works by converting scrap metal into steel. It cannot cope with iron ore, and not all scrap iron is suitable. So Britain will become the only developed economy in the world that does not produce virgin steel at a time when international competition to fuel EAFs is driving up the price of scrap metal. Ironically research currently taking place, some of it financed by the UK, is looking into alternative means of making virgin steel that use methane or hydrogen to make iron with reduced emissions.

Tata has not mentioned how, given its efforts to combat carbon emissions, it has built a new industrial complex in India which will produce over twice the carbon footprint of the Port Talbot steelworks. This will be the largest complex under the Tata banner of ownership, and cheaper to run as workers in India don’t have the same guaranteed minimum wage as those employed in the UK. 

Those same UK workers are not allowing the company to close the steelworks without a fight. Unite, the Union, has issued its full backing to the workers whose jobs are at risk. Unite attempted to negotiate with the company to no avail as Tata rejected any plans which would see further delays to the overhauling of the Port Talbot steelworks. 

Not at all deterred, Unite’s General Secretary, Sharon Graham, promised a strong show of force in response to these actions:

“Unite has over one and a half thousand members at Port Talbot. We are the biggest private sector union in Britain and we are ready to use everything in our armoury including industrial action – backed by our £30 million strike fund – and political leverage to fight for this outcome for Port Talbot.”

The Welsh government has actually decided to back the unions over Westminster, having urged Sunak’s government to produce a fair transitional agreement for the Port Talbot Workers. Along with Unite, the Welsh government has warned that the issue is far from closed., Both they and the unions will do everything they can to minimise job losses, and prevent the catastrophic economic fallout that will impact on the people of Port Talbot for decades to come.

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