“Significant legal, social and moral responsibilities” – this is what trade unions recently warned Tata Steel it still had to steelworkers in the UK.
Port Talbot in South Wales looked set to lose over 4,000 jobs earlier this year, when the multi-national company reported a loss of £1 million a day in its operations across the UK. Despite the fact that the Welsh Assembly has no power over what happens, the steel crisis (as well as the EU referendum) dominated the recent assembly elections.
Whilst the immediate crisis of closure was averted, the future of the steelworks – and that of the workers and the communities in which they live – is still uncertain. With prices of steel improving, seven bids for the steelworks in play at the time of writing (to be shortlisted imminently to two or three), and even some talk of a Tata turnaround to keep the steelworks, it seems as if – barring a derailment caused by uncertainty brought on by the Brexit vote – Port Talbot jobs are ‘safe.’ At a cost.
The problem is, like all multi-national corporation, Tata Steel and the other potential buyers only really have legal responsibility to maximise profit to their shareholders. That is, quite literally, the bottom line.
Where social, moral (and even legal) responsibility to workers are concerned, there is little regard. This is obvious in the developments since the crisis hit, in the negotiations between government and corporation – in what’s on the table to try and keep those jobs in Port Talbot.
Negotiable items have included state relief to energy costs (off the back of complaints that UK energy prices were too high due to environmental legislation – which in reality only contribute a small proportion of one per cent of costs incurred in the steelworks); the restructuring of workers’ pensions (which is currently illegal, would result in a 10 per cent cut to workers’ benefits, and may set a precedent for other industries to become exempt from pensions safeguards); and a £1 billion commercial loan from government to the buyer (to which a source from Tata Steel said: “If it works, then [Tata] will make a profit; it doesn’t, then they won’t be able to pay it back”).
In short: in return for the exact same insecurity as the steelworkers had all along, we would get an attack on environmental regulations, a dangerous assault on the very same (and many more) workers’ rights, and the lining of corporate pockets by a government apparently too cash-strapped to keep vital public services open – the return of which the UK taxpayer may never see.
Tata Steel must be laughing all the way to the bailed-out bank. I don’t see an ounce of legal, social or moral responsibility to those workers in this game.
There are alternatives to this idiotic ‘rinse and repeat’ mentality to ‘saving’ our steel. To me, the only business model that can offer real legal, social and moral responsibility to workers and their communities is a worker-owned co-operative – whether that be steelworks or something else entirely. Unfortunately, that would require substantial legislative backing for the formation of cooperative enterprises of this kind (and probably financial support), which government doesn’t seem to be inclined to support or promote.
It would also require a group of workers to propose it locally, which has yet to happen. But I think the steelworkers know their skills and their strengths, they know what they want in their communities, and I think they are very well-placed to weigh up the balance between what is a risky strategy and what is a decent strategy that will keep work sustainable into the future in their communities – given the right support to do so.