‘We have to fight for our living’: Port Talbot’s uncertain future as costs of going green hit | UK news

“Workers united will never be defeated!” one man shouts at the top of his lungs. He is part of a crowd marching through the streets of Manchester in a May Day parade organized by some of Britain’s biggest trade unions.

The sun is shining and there is a festival atmosphere as his fellow marchers hold aloft placards for workers’ rights and fair pay.

Among the demonstrators is Jason Wyatt, a steelworker from South Wales. He is here to shine a spotlight on what is happening in his hometown of Port Talbot, where several thousand of his colleagues are facing layoffs.

There is applause when Jason comes on stage.

Jason Wyatt speaks during the May Day Parade

“They are trying to destroy the livelihood of 2,800 people,” he says. “Port Talbot is the last bastion of heavy industry in South Wales. We must fight back.”

Port Talbot, on the south coast of Wales, has had a steelworks for 125 years.

These days, the large, sprawling facility is owned by That steelan Indian company that employs about half of its 8,000 employees in Port Talbot.

The local economy is heavily dependent on the manufacturing sector, which provides around a fifth of jobs in the area, according to Welsh Government figures.

tata steel drone

But Britain’s steel industry is struggling to stay competitive in a cutthroat global market, and that means an uncertain future for communities like Port Talbot.

In 2019, the UK produced seven million tonnes of steel, behind seven EU countries – including Germany with 40 million tonnes. Meanwhile, China produced 996 million tons.

Steel plants also cost huge amounts of money to operate because they use huge amounts of energy.

The Port Talbot plant has by far the biggest bill and uses as much electricity, for example, as the entire town of Swansea a few miles down the highway.

The amounts are not being collected, says Tata Steel. He claims his UK business is losing £1m a day.

New electric arc furnace of Tata steel

The other huge problem facing the company and its Port Talbot plant is how much it pollutes. The steel industry is the biggest source of greenhouse gases in the UK.

And Tata reckons that by moving away from its existing coal-fired blast furnace to a greener way of making steel – using scrap as fuel – it could cut overall UK carbon emissions by around 1.5 per cent.

The UK government has agreed to pay Tata £500 million to the construction of a new electric arc furnace.

But to do that, Tata says it has to close its two remaining blast furnaces, resulting in the loss of 2,800 jobs.

Going green is costing jobs in Port Talbot. And it’s a dilemma facing companies in the UK – and around the world.

That steel hot furnace sparks

“Tata is asking people to save the business by imprisoning their jobs. It’s terrible,” says Jason, who has worked at the Port Talbot plant for 25 years.

An estimated 1.3 million workers in carbon-intensive so-called “brown” jobs will have to adapt to cleaner technologies and processes, according to the think tank Resolution Foundation.

But the numbers on the cost of going green are disputed.

The TUC estimates that 800,000 manufacturing and supply chain jobs could be cut without government support.

While the Committee on Climate Change, an independent body set up by the government in 2008, says between 8,000 and 75,000 jobs could remain during the transition.

The government says the UK is the first major economy to halve its emissions – and is leading the transformation of the energy industry, with more than 80,000 green jobs currently supported or in the pipeline from 2020.

“Much transferable expertise from industries such as steel and oil and gas will be critical to the transition to net zero,” a government spokesman said.

“And our Green Jobs Plan will ensure we have enough skills to meet emerging and future workforce demands across the economy.”

Inside the factory, it is hot and the air smells of sulfur, a byproduct of the manufacturing process. Peter Quinn is leading Tata’s shift to green steel.

He says the idea that his arc furnace could be operational in four years is still “tentative” and that consultations with stakeholders, including workers, must be completed first.

Tata Steel Worker

Unions and local politicians have called on Tata to keep one blast furnace running while the new one is built. But Tata says this is not cost-effective.

Quinn says the only other option is to completely abandon steelmaking at Port Talbot.

Jason believes that Tata should opt for a smoother transition that will avoid the need for redundancies.

“We are not opposed to the green steel program,” he says. “What we’re up against is how we’re transitioning.”

This change is already affecting his family. His son Tyler is 19 and was hoping to apply for an apprenticeship at Tata.

“I’m at a point in my life where I need to start securing my future, buy a house and settle down somewhere,” says Tyler. “But now it’s too risky to think there are options [at Tata] about me.”

Jason with family
Jason Wyatt on the beach with his family

As Jason and his family take a windswept walk along the town’s beach with their dogs, their eyes are drawn to the port, where cranes used to unload iron ore from around the world dominate the view.

But out at sea, hope may be on the horizon. There are plans for a huge wind farm in the Celtic Sea with enough wind turbines to power four million homes.

And Tata hopes it can make platforms the size of a football field on which the turbines will sit.

But this potential new chapter in the story of Britain’s journey towards a greener economy still seems a long way off for steelworkers.

Boat drone in Swansea Bay

Ashley Curnow, Wales division manager for Associated British Ports, hopes coastal towns such as Port Talbot will benefit from the new development.

“I understand there’s a huge amount of anxiety right now throughout the community and I think our role in this project is to get the project done as soon as possible and offer those job opportunities.”

At home, Jason and his family consider what the future holds.

His wife, Stacey, believes that Tata treats its workers unfairly.

“I think what Tata Steel is doing to its workers is wrong. They don’t really care how it’s going to affect people and their families.”

“It’s a tough time for all of us,” adds Jason. “We have i have to fight to protect our livelihood”.

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