18 January 2016

What makes steelworkers’ jobs so special?


Some jobs are more important than other jobs.

Those jobs don’t necessarily pay the highest salaries or require the most qualifications; they aren’t even the most powerful or glamorous. But make no mistake about it, some jobs matter more than others and, when those jobs are lost, that matters more too.

When redundancies are announced in a long standing industry most of whose employees are white, working class men in strong unions, then it’s time for our politicians to sit up and pay attention – and shake the magic money tree to see what millions in publicly funded bail-outs and subsidies might fall out.

Forget jobs in coffee cars or call centres; no one cares about them. Yet if it’s jobs lost in mining, car manufacturing or steel, then it’s all hands to the industrial-sized pump.

It is of course desperately sad news for the 1,050 employees of the Tata steelworks in Port Talbot who have just discovered that they are to lose their jobs. It is also bad news for their families and the many other people in the town whose livelihoods depend on those steel jobs.

But while British steelworkers deserve our sympathy, I’m afraid they don’t deserve our hard-earned money as well.

Demands from the steelworkers, their union, the local MP and even the Labour leadership for the Government to bail them out with taxpayers’ money to save those 1,050 jobs are understandable but utterly wrong. The British steel industry is on its knees, but it’s not the fault of the Government. It’s a simple fact of global competition.

Almost 20,000 people are employed in the British steel industry and at least one in six is now at risk of losing their job thanks to a perfect storm of economic factors. The 2008 economic crash saw global demand for steel plummet, with supply now vastly outstripping demand, while the strength of the pound has made British steel relatively expensive to buy. Meanwhile, high energy costs in the UK, green taxes and the sale of Chinese steel (no longer wanted in China) for below cost price have all combined to cripple British sales.

So, no conspiracy. No concerted effort to destroy the manufacturing base of this country due to class hatred. Just the plain hard facts of life in a global market.

While there are good arguments for a Government to prop up a key industry during a temporary crisis, those argument just don’t wash without any prospect of light at the end of the cheap Chinese steel tunnel. British steel is just not economically viable anymore. Even if the Government caved in and offered a bail out or cut green taxes, it won’t change the fundamental realities.

But the key question remains as to why the steelworkers, their unions and MPs think that taxpayers’ money should be used to prop up an unprofitable industry?

What makes steelworkers so special?

Have those steelworkers and their families ever shopped in Primark and bought clothes made abroad using cheap labour costing a pittance, rather than chosen to pay more for British-made goods to keep our textile industry alive?

Have they ever purchased a book on Amazon for half the price that it is in a bookshop, not worrying for one moment about the inevitable job losses as book store after bookstore closes down? Have they ever bought cheap furniture at Ikea, instead of from a long standing British-owned, but dearer, furniture shop?

Have they ever shopped in Lidl or Aldi, taking their custom from the more expensive British-owned Big Four supermarkets?

And if they did any of those things, did they have sleepless nights about the possible job losses for which they would be partly responsible? And did they expect their hard-earned taxes to be spent propping up the British textile industry, book stores, furniture manufacturers or the biggest supermarkets? I doubt it.

The job losses in the steel industry are very sad but an inevitable fact of life in a global competitive market.

Some jobs may matter more than others but, whatever their unions and Labour MPs might like to tell the steelworkers of Port Talbot, taxpayers may see things rather differently when it’s their hard earned money being spent.

Julia Hartley-Brewer is a journalist and broadcaster. A former political editor and LBC Radio presenter, she is a regular on TV shows such as Question Time and Have I Got News For You, and on Radio 4’s Any Questions.