One of the last places my dad asked to visit before he died last year was Aberavon beach. With the industrial landscape of the Tata steelworks in full view, he breathed in the sea air, watched my kids play, and reminisced about his time as a steelworker. There was no question for him: Wales had to fight to keep its steel industry alive.
For many growing up and working in South Wales, Port Talbot steelworks has been the backdrop to our lives.
The news from Tata that it will close its blast furnaces at the plant is devastating and completely infuriating. Devastating because we are looking at thousands of good, high-skilled, union jobs destroyed. And infuriating because it absolutely does not have to be this way.
A combination of corporate and political neglect has brought us to this point — despite energetic and viable work by unions to map out a profitable, strong future for the plant that would have completely avoided the carnage that Tata has outlined in its announcement.
The damaging impact will echo out of the steelworks themselves and across all of South Wales.
The three trade unions who represent steelworkers in Port Talbot – Community, GMB and Unite – are in constant dialogue with their members and will be doing all they can to fight for them. All options are on the table – including industrial action. They have unwavering solidarity from all of our 48 trade unions across Wales and the 400,000 workers those unions represent.
Without large-scale action and investment, there is a massive risk that another generation of industrial workers in the area will be left scarred. South Wales has been here before.
Anyone who has gone through a redundancy process knows that unshakeable feeling of insecurity it leaves you with. It casts doubt over your plans, your sense of financial security, your ambitions and even your sense of who you are and what you want to be.
It is extremely challenging to deal with this on an individual or organisational level. But even more overwhelming when the redundancies and changes in question start to unravel the very identity of your community.
Port Talbot without the steelworks is almost impossible to imagine, and so is the prospect of the UK reliant on steel imports in future. It’s difficult to understand why any government would allow – let alone facilitate – this to happen.
Manufacturing matters to Wales. Wales has maintained a higher level of manufacturing than other areas of the UK. In 2022, the median weekly salary for manufacturing was £619, compared to £479 for service industry roles.
Manufacturing workers are more likely to be unionised, more likely to have collective bargaining and the benefits associated with this (such as relatively higher rates of pay) and manufacturing workers support the foundational economy in their local communities. All social partners – be it government, employers or unions – should want to protect Wales’s manufacturing sector.
As so many have highlighted in recent days, there will be enormous consequences of this decision for the wider area and those businesses that work with Tata. Research from Cardiff University has suggested that for each of the 4,000 jobs at Tata, 1.2 jobs are supported throughout Wales.
It is also important to consider the community to which this is happening. Port Talbot’s economy and much of the surrounding area is built around and reliant on the steelworks.
The town has one of the highest levels of economic inactivity in the UK. The wider county, Neath Port Talbot, has lower weekly pay than Wales as a whole, and high rates of poverty and deprivation. Just like in the rest of the UK, public services in the community have suffered from years of underfunding and residents are still experiencing the brutal effects of the cost of living crisis.
This is also not the kind of hit that the Welsh economy can absorb. Tata has long been one of Wales’s most important private sector employers. Ten years ago, the economic impact on the Welsh economy was measured at £3.2 billion, with a supported gross value added of £1.6 billion. We are talking about hundreds of millions of pounds in wages being taken out of the pockets of workers, their households and their communities.
This is happening at a time when the UK Government is putting a further squeeze on public spending in Wales. £1.3 billion is being taken from the Welsh Government’s budget this year alone. To add insult to injury, the UK Government has refused to even meet with their counterparts in Cardiff in recent months to discuss the steel crisis.
What we’re seeing in Port Talbot is the real-world collapse of the hollow, condescending rhetoric on levelling up that the Tories have been spouting. Real levelling up would mean engaging with unions and investing at a level that would secure a proper future – a just transition – for the steelworks and communities that house them. It’s not too late, but time is running out.