The Port Talbot steel works in my constituency is owned by Tata Steel, a Mumbai-based company that employs almost 17,000 steel workers across the length and breadth of the UK. There are 4,000 steel workers in Port Talbot, and more than twice that number of jobs in my constituency depend on the steel works through its supply chains. The Port Talbot steel works has been the beating heart of our community for generations, and its output is of critical importance to the local, Welsh and British economies.
On Saturday 9 May a thousand steel workers from the Tata works in Port Talbot gathered in the Princess Royal theatre in central Port Talbot. The auditorium was packed to the rafters, and I was proud to have the opportunity to address the rally from be on the platform, alongside Aberavon Welsh Assembly Member David Rees and trade union representatives of the workforce. There was just one item on our agenda: Tata Steel’s proposal to close the British Steel Pension Scheme. Following the rally I joined the workforce and their families on a march through the centre of town. It was a strong show of unity from a community whose fortunes are intimately bound up with those of the steelworks.
This display of strength sent a clear and defiant message to the leadership at Tata Steel: hands off our pensions. Unfortunately that message was not heeded, and so the trade unions were left with no choice but to ballot their members.
On Friday the ballot papers were counted, and the result could not have been more emphatic: in total 88 per cent have voted in favour of strike action nationally, and that number went up to 96 per cent in Port Talbot itself. National turn-out was 76 per cent, and in Port Talbot that number went up to 84 per cent.
The workforce is not planning to strike over pay or conditions, but over the withdrawal of a pension deal that the older workers have been promised for decades.
If the resounding vote in favour of industrial action is a first in the steel industry since the 1980s, it should come as no surprise that the move was so popular. The proposal to raise the pensionable age for Tata employees from 60 to 65 shows a lack of understanding of the reality of what it takes to produce steel. The fact is that the tough physical labour involved in steel working makes it incompatible with advancing age.
Tata Steel employees, working long shifts in challenging conditions for decades, have always been able to look forward to the prospect of retirement at 60, should they wish to take it. Those workers rightly feel let down by Tata Steel’s proposal to close the pension scheme that has formed the basis of their retirement plans since they joined the company.
The typical steel worker works a 12 hour day, often in precarious settings whether at the top of a crane or in extreme heat. Caster operators have to wear heat proof jackets, gloves and face shields for the entirety of their shifts in case they come into contact with the high temperatures or asbestos which was used as a heat proofer in the original construction of the works. They operate around dangerous chemicals; instances of lung cancer are higher among steel workers than in the general population. The mental strain of much of the work is just as serious as the physical strain; industrial accidents are often the result of momentary lapses in concentration and can mean death. This is high-risk work, which deserves certain pension guarantees. Allowing these workers to choose to retire at 60 is not only reasonable, it’s necessary if Tata are to avoid injuries and potential deaths among the workforce. I will open myself up to accusations of ageism here and say that there is an age at which is too old to safely work in certain positions at a steel plant.
The Port Talbot steel works is one of the largest in Europe, and is central to the UK’s manufacturing sector. It is therefore vital to our national economy that this conflict is resolved, but unfortunately there is a real risk that Tata Steel will continue to sleep-walk into the first steel strike since the 1980s. My fervent hope now is that this thumping vote in favour of industrial action will act as a wake-up call that will bring Tata Steel management back to the negotiating table in good faith.
The Tata Steel workforce has demonstrated its readiness to compromise, including a cap on future earnings growth in exchange for keeping the early retirement clause. This represented a real sacrifice on the part of the younger workers who have already been barred from the pension scheme that includes the early retirement clause. But it was a sacrifice that I know the younger workers in Port Talbot were happy to make, in solidarity with their older colleagues.
Steel underpins a vast range of other industries, and as such it is truly a Foundation Industry. Just look around you: from power generation and transmission to rail, shipbuilding, construction, white goods, automotive, consumer products, all depend on steel. It is no exaggeration to say that the quality of our national infrastructure and economic growth goes hand-in-hand with the future of the steel industry.
Our steel industry is also crucial to our prestige as a nation; without a steel industry would we even qualify as a leading industrial nation? What would the loss of this strategic industry mean to our membership of the G8?
I therefore urge the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills to act now. The PM should be encouraging the leadership of the Tata Group in Mumbai to engage more actively with this crisis, and the Secretary of State should be exhorting their colleagues in Tata Steel Europe to return to the negotiating table. There is still time to pull this conflict back from the brink.
Sustainable industrial strength in the 21st century requires us to have a motivated, healthy, confident and productive workforce. The Port Talbot steel works is a beacon of high quality manufacturing. It is British industry at its best.
Let’s resolve this conflict and get back to business.