Europe's Steel Crisis Is Screwing Workers in South Wales
The economy of Port Talbot is reliant on a steel industry that's being swallowed up by globalisation.
Driving along the A48 from Cardiff, the coastal views suddenly give way to the enormous industrial sprawl that makes up the Port Talbot steelworks. Part Blade Runner, part Call of Duty multiplayer map, it's a dystopian, brutalist and compellingly beautiful aesthetic.
I'm driving to meet with Jason Balston, a 47-year-old heavy plant operator and union rep who has worked at Tata Steel since 2001. One study says Tata is "the most economically important private sector company in Wales", but it has come under increasing pressure in recent months. In the 1960s, Port Talbot's steelworks employed 20,000 people. That has dwindled to 4,000, and in January it was announced that 750 of those jobs would be cut.
Jason invites me into his living room. A reality show called Ice Road Truckers is on the TV. Jason pauses it on an image of an eight-wheeled vehicle struggling not to slide down a vertical slab of ice into a lake. Tata Steel made the news again last week when a spectacular fire broke out early on Thursday morning. The initial theory, not yet discounted, was that a lightning strike was to blame – a stroke of bad luck that would fit with Tata's current predicament.
I ask Jason what he made of the fire. He laughs and tells me that initially he shit himself – the security system immediately shut all power down across the entire site, sending his office into darkness. But he says it was no big deal, really, and in truth, it's difficult to imagine Jason scared. Before working for Harsco (a long term partner of Tata) he spent years at sea as a commercial fisherman – a job he says he'll go back to if the worst comes to the worst. Jason looks briefly again at the paused TV screen and I decide he could probably handle himself as an ice road trucker if fishing goes the same way as steel.
On Monday in Brussels, steel workers from 15 EU countries are marching to demand that the European Commission stop cheap Chinese steel being "dumped" in Europe. Jason explains that, in the last year, China produced more steel than the UK has in the last 12 years. He goes on to say that the Chinese steel is known to be difficult to mill and is generally regarded as being "fucking useless to work with". But it's cheap, while the Port Talbot plant struggles with high energy prices and a strong pound. Among other large-scale projects in Wales and the UK to utilise Chinese steel, the wind turbines that have sprung up over much of the south Wales coastline are mostly made out of it. "Absolute madness," says Jason.
In addition to Jason's partner, Tiff, his stepson also works at Tata, having previously been employed washing pots in a hotel kitchen. Jason also has relatives and life-long friends who either work at the steelworks, work for companies that provide services to the site or have small businesses like cafes and pubs whose financial viability relies entirely on decent levels of local employment.
It's almost impossible to overstate how important Tata is to the local community. With pay starting at around £30,000, the steel works puts about £200 million a year into the economy in salaries alone. Port Talbot can't afford to lose steel, but the plant is losing £1 million every day.
Jason has overseen job losses before, and as a union representative has had to deliver the bad news to childhood friends, watching as grown men break down in tears across the table from him. He says it's difficult, particularly as many of the employees have worked there since the age of 16 and often have few, if any, transferable skills. "Going fishing with your butty on Sunday, knowing you're firing him on the Monday... well, you just get on with it don't you?" says Jason.
South Wales has seen this before, with the demise of the coal industry in the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher. But while Jason doesn't have much love for the Tories, past or present, his anger is mainly reserved for the Labour Party.
"They're just not interested in us, never have been," he says. Aberavon's incumbent MP is Stephen Kinnock, son of former Labour leader Neil and husband of Helle Thorning-Schmidt, Denmark's Prime Minister from 2011 to 2015. He is as close to European political aristocracy as you could get.
Kinnock won a majority of over 10,000 at the last election. That election saw something of a surge for UKIP, which gained nearly 5,000 votes compared to just short of 500 in 2010. I ask Jason about UKIP and he nods, saying that the party is gaining support among his colleagues.
As I leave, I ask Jason to sum up how he sees Tata's long-term prospects.
"Grim" he replies, matter of factly. He smiles and un-pauses the television. I suspect that Jason will be fine whatever happens, but it's clear that a great many people in these parts will have to struggle to make ends meet.
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