Port Talbot redundancies show profit is still taking precedence over the common good

The announcement this morning that 2,800 jobs are to go at Port Talbot’s Tata Steel plant has such a familiar ring about it, that it’s easy to underestimate the impact of this devastating decision. A decades-long litany of job losses across the south Wales and the wider UK steel making landscape have born testament to a country whose once proud manufacturing history has been systematically dismantled by successive governments.

It’s a dreadful irony that the very country that kicked off the Industrial Revolution and grew into one of the world’s greatest manufacturing centres is now reduced to a minor player, heavily dependent on third world imports with all the environmental impacts that brings. In commercial terms the end of Port Talbot means that the UK has finally lost its ability to produce steel domestically, making us the only country in the G20 group of industrialised countries incapable of doing so. With rapidly increasing global and political uncertainty ahead, this is not only a serious commercial weakness, but it’s not a position you would want to be in if you suddenly have to start making things to support or defend your country – which may very well happen within the next few decades if recent remarks from NATO officials are anything to go by.

The latest decision at Tata has been largely papered over by claims about cleaner steel production, as the latest job losses will be a consequence of shutting down the last, traditional blast furnace and replacing it with a more modern, greener electric-arc furnace. Unions say they have tabled a “compelling plan” to keep the existing  furnace running whilst the new one is built, thus saving the 2,800 for a while at least, but unsurprisingly the redundancy announcement has only been released after a new round of deals have been signed and sealed with the government.

For those not familiar with Tata Steel, its part of the larger India-based Tatra Group, which in 2022 declared revenues of £118bn and amongst other things is the parent company of Jaguar Land Rover. The company recently announced it will spend £4bn building a flagship electric vehicle battery “Gigafactory” in the UK to supply its Jaguar Land Rover range of vehicles.

Whilst the message today that Tata is helping Britain to shed its old, polluting industries in favour of innovative, future-looking green alternatives is a powerful deindustrialisation pitch, it won’t come as much comfort to those whose lives will be shredded in the process. And it’s worth noting that whilst 2,800 steel families will lose their livelihoods, the decision will also impact on the families of the thousands of contractors, sub contractors, agencies and local businesses whose viability depends on the Port Talbot works.

The actor Michael Sheen, who grew up in Port Talbot, put it very succinctly this morning when he reflected that the steelworks is “like the North Star for the town. So many families’ lives revolve around its axis.”

For its part the government hasn’t shown much empathy for the human devastation this decision will cause, instead choosing to hand Tata a £500m blank cheque – with no strings, scrutiny or strategy – towards the cost of building the new electric-arc furnace. Little seems to have been said about how the job losses and the knock-on impact will be ameliorated. It’s almost as if the presumption from the present government is that the benefits of cleaner industry and hitting our global emission targets makes any concern about individual human considerations and impacts largely irrelevant. (The move to electric-arc will reduce Tata Steel UK’s CO2 emissions by five million tonnes per year and overall UK country emissions by about 1.5%).

As a journalist working around north Wales industries in the 1980s I witnessed first hand the appalling impact that mass redundancies can wreak on their surrounding communities. When the mighty Brymbo steel works near Wrexham closed in 1990 more than 1,100 lost their jobs, and this just a few miles down the road from Deeside where just a decade earlier in March 1980 Shotton Steel had closed with the loss of more than 6,500 jobs – the biggest mass redundancy in Europe at the time.

It’s hard to describe or measure the impact that the loss of those 8,000 or so well-paid, stable jobs had on the local north Wales economy, but countless lives and families were decimated, never to recover.

Most of those affected were loyal, long-term employees with skills unique to the steel industry, who could not easily move to other trades, and whose age meant they were simply thrown on the employment scrap heap. The impact of that catastrophe is still evident in the locality today, as are those who suffered, and are still suffering as a consequence of global economic shifts, and the inertia of governments to deal with the human impact.

Just two years later, up in Scotland, the great Ravenscraig complex crashed, signalling the end of large scale steel making in Scotland. That closure led to a direct loss of 770 jobs, and at least another 10,000 jobs linked to them.

In its heyday in the 1960s the steelworks in Port Talbot employed some 20,000 locals and the town was built on it. A decade ago that figure had shrunk to 4,000 but it still has an imposing presence in the Welsh economy, with workers’ salaries alone pumping some £200m a year into the system. Overnight that will now evaporate, to be replaced no doubt with a flimsy, short-term support strategy that will do little or nothing to rehabilitate and retrain workers into a work landscape that has precious little requirement for their particular skills or experience.

Following this morning’s announcement, Tata Steel’s chief executive TV Narendran has said that the company will provide a £130m “comprehensive support package to mitigate the impact of any anticipated job losses, including helping employees to retrain and find new jobs”. Given the 2,800 redundancies, that represents a rehabilitation and retraining budget of just £460 per affected person – perhaps a tacit admission that sadly the majority of those being made redundant will probably never work again.

Tata says that these latest redundancies are necessary to “reverse more than a decade of losses and transition from the legacy blast furnaces to a more sustainable, green steel business”. The admission of losses is interesting, as the history of Tata’s involvement with British steel making (since is 2006 takeover of Corus, formally British Steel) reads like a litany of mismanagement and poor decisions, propped up by a British government with little or no sense of a sensible long-term strategy for UK manufacturing. Only now is it becoming clear that we may have to pay a heavy price for hastily exporting our past manufacturing strengths to developing countries in order to improve our green credentials, and the profitability of our increasingly service-based industries.

As the great Dominican thrologian Fr Vincent McNabb once warned: “we have replaced ‘things’ with the ‘mere tokens’ of things.”

Back in March 2014 Pope Francis held an audience for staff and workers of the ThyssenKrupp steel plant in Italy, where the 130 year old German-owned company was about to sack 550 workers in very similar interests of the ‘strategic needs’ of the parent company, allegedly faced with pressure on all sides from global surpluses and the misalignment of needs vs wants.

In a clear reference back to Pope John Paul II’s landmark encyclical Laborem Exercens, which sought to put the human person at the centre of, and prime purpose of, human work, Pope Francis described the decimation of jobs across modern European industries as “the consequence of an economic system that is no longer able to create jobs, because it places in its centre an idol which is called money!”

It’s a point of view that certainly seems to be shared by Cardinal Peter Turkson, who is presently at the 54th Annual Meeting of The World Economic Forum in Davos-Klosters. In a clear reiteration of Laborem Exercens the cardinal, who is Chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Science, has called on businesses to foster economic solidarity and to change business practices and goals to put the good of the human person – and not profits – at the centre of commercial activities.

The Cardinal proposed a shift from ‘maximising’ profit and returns to ‘optimising’ them, urging businesses to consider the broader impact they have on society and human life.

“We want to leverage the objectives of business—not only profit and monetary gain—but also the transformational value that it brings to society—making life better, worth living, equitable, and inclusive,” said the Cardinal.

Sadly, this is a message of fiscal and commercial rationality that clearly has yet to reach the south Wales valleys. The passage of investment, government subsidies, reorganisations and ratonalisations that have crushed the British steel industry over the past three decades demonstrates clearly that no-one had any meaningful commitment to creating either an industry or alternatives that placed the welfare of workers at its centre.

Equally, no-one seems to be thinking strategically for the long term about what kind of industrial and commercial landscape might be required for a stable, peaceful and prosperous society.

In his own personal message to the Davos forum earlier this week, Pope Francis urged political, economic and business leaders to look beyond profit and try to heal an “increasingly lacerated” world with moral and ethical decisions.

He said that the present and developing world situation required that businesses “be increasingly guided not simply by the pursuit of fair profit, but also by high ethical standards”.

That might sound like a statement of the obvious to us Catholics, but it’s going to be quite a challenge to interest our legislators in any kind of a moral strategy for commerce, when the prevailing preoccupation seems to be with neglecting domestic industry, adopting a ‘free trade’ policy, allowing UK manufacturing to drift overseas, the erosion of our critical home production capacity and the destruction of our urban communities. And all of that before we look at the human consequences of throwing away industries without robust and meaningful mechanisms in place to care for those most deeply affected by such profound changes.

In his encyclical Laborem Exercens, Pope John Paul II pointed out that “It is not for the Church to analyse scientifically the consequences that these changes may have on human society. But the Church considers it her task always to call attention to the dignity and rights of those who work, to condemn situations in which that dignity and those rights are violated, and to help to guide the above-mentioned changes so as to ensure authentic progress by man and society.”

It may not be fashionable, or sometimes even appropriate, for the Catholic Church to comment on individual government decisions relating to economic policy, but it’s essential that our voice is heard when considering the negative human and personal consequences of fiscal mismanagement and strategic planning. Turning attention away from profits to the common good isn’t going to be easy, but in the end a society is nothing without workers who are being valued far more than just as a form of ‘currency’.

Joseph Kelly is a Catholic publisher and theologian