Closure of British steelworks transcends economic implications

In The Full Monty, Gerald barks “Oi, it says no smoking in here!” barks Gerald . “Yeah,” retorts Gazzer, “and it says ‘Job Club’ up there, and when was the last time you saw one of them walk in?” The 1997 classic, where six ex-steelworkers resort to stripping after Sheffield’s deindustrialisation, is relevant once again, as approximately 5100 British steelworkers face redundancy in the coming year.

While a taxpayer-funded bailout of the beleaguered industry should not be expected, livelihoods and communities are at stake and the government response has been dismal; action must be taken to avoid a catastrophic collapse. Unfortunately, not everyone can just “get their kecks off”, fade to black, and live happily ever after.

2200 jobs from the Redcar steelworks on Teesside, 1200 from Tata steel in Scunthorpe and Scotland, and 450 from Caparo Industries in the West Midlands are all set to be cut. Figures from the West Midlands Economic Forum indicate that 260,000 local manufacturing jobs in the region rely directly on steel.

These losses speak volumes about the industry’s bleak outlook and bring back memories for my grandad, who worked with Sheffield steel from the time he left school at 15 in 1951 to the day he retired in 2001.

“When they shut down a plant, it’s a lot more than just business”, he says, “they just don’t think about all the people it affects.”

The knock-on economic and social effect to the surrounding area following a plant closure is massive. In Redcar, 70 million pounds a year is set to be lost from the local economy in the next year as 2200 workers join the breadline. Equally, expertise in steel making, however impressive, is not an especially transferrable skill; another worry for those soon to be made redundant: “Most of the lads I knew worked with steel their entire lives” my grandad comments,  “Started as lads, finished as old men. The young’uns though, where do you expect them to go after their firms shut?” Long-term unemployment due to a lack of alternatives breeds disenfranchisement and a feeling of inadequacy, not to mention the obvious financial impact to the workers’ families.

The cultural significance of the steel industry to the areas it is based cannot be overstated: “The cutlery industry was Sheffield. It’s what we were known for. The steel city built on steel”, as my grandad states.

Tom Blekinsop, the Labour MP for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, points to the “identity, dignity and esteem” derived from life as a steelworker. Industry in this way can unite a community; removing it without a contingency plan would be disastrous.

The government has laid blame for the closures on the high energy prices and the strength of the pound, whilst also alleging that China is ‘dumping’ steel into Britain at a price far lower than at home, and thus undercutting British prices. Surely some protectionist measures are in order to fend off this “invisible hand of capitalism”, as described by campaigner Billy Bragg on Question Time this week. Whilst a number of procurement standards focused on promoting the use of British steel have been laid out by George Osbourne recently, many view them as desperate and too little too late.

A thorough and frank assessment of the steel industry’s long term viability in a global marketplace must be carried out before its roaring furnaces are extinguished for good.

The management of the decline is not acceptable – direct action to safeguard the livelihoods at risk must be taken; the steel industry in Britain must now be regarded as a national asset rather than purely in terms of profit. Without all this, we   cannot, with a clear conscience, end the British steel industry.

Image: Georgie Pauwels

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