‘We’ve got to fight for our livelihoods’: Steel’s uncertain future as the cost of going green hits home


“Workers united, will never be defeated!” a man shouts into a loud hailer. He is part of a crowd marching through the streets of Manchester in a May Day parade, organised by some of Britain’s biggest trade unions.

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

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

There’s applause as Jason takes to the stage.

Jason speech at protest march
Jason Wyatt speaks during the May Day parade

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

There has been a steelworks in Port Talbot, which sits on the south coast of Wales, for 125 years.

These days the large, sprawling site is owned by Tata Steel, an Indian company which employs around half of its 8,000 workforce in Port Talbot.

More on Tata

The local economy is heavily reliant on the manufacturing sector, which provides approximately a fifth of jobs in the area, according to Welsh government figures.

tata steel drone

But the British steel industry has struggled to remain competitive in a fierce global market, and that means uncertain futures for communities like Port Talbot.

In 2019, the UK produced seven million tonnes of steel, behind seven EU nations – including Germany’s 40 million tonnes. Meanwhile, China produced 996 million tonnes.

Steelworks also cost huge amounts to run because they use massive amounts of energy.

The Port Talbot plant has, by far, the biggest bill and uses as much electricity, for example, as the whole of the city of Swansea a few miles along the motorway.

The sums do not add up, says Tata Steel. It claims its UK business loses £1m a day.

Tata steel new electric arc furnace site

The other huge issue facing the company, and its Port Talbot plant, is how polluting it is. The steelworks is the single biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in Britain.

And Tata thinks that by moving away from its existing coal-powered blast furnace to a greener way of making steel – using scrap metal as fuel – it could reduce the UK’s entire carbon emissions by around 1.5 per cent.

The UK government has agreed to pay Tata £500m towards the building of a new electric arc furnace.

But to do that, Tata says it needs to shut down the two remaining blast furnaces, resulting in the loss of 2,800 jobs.

The drive to go green is costing jobs in Port Talbot. And that’s a dilemma that companies across the UK – and around the world – are facing.

Tata steel hot furnace sparks

“Tata are asking people to save the business with a forfeit in their jobs. It’s awful,” says Jason, who has worked at the Port Talbot plant for 25 years.

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

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

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

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

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

“Much of the transferable expertise from industries such as steelworks and oil and gas will be crucial for the transition to net zero,” a government spokesperson said.

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

Inside the plant, it’s hot and the smell of sulphur hangs in the air, a by-product of the manufacturing process. Peter Quinn is leading Tata’s move to green steel.

He says the idea that its arc furnace could be up and running in four years is still “approximate” and that consultations with stakeholders, including the workers, would need to be completed first.

Tata steel worker

The unions and local politicians have called on Tata to keep one blast furnace operational while the new one is built. But Tata says that is not cost-effective.

Quinn says the only other option is abandoning steelmaking in Port Talbot altogether.

Jason thinks Tata should opt for a more gradual transition that would avoid the need to make redundancies.

“We’re not opposing the green steel agenda,” he says. “What we’re opposing is the way in which we’re transitioning.”

This shift is already impacting his family. His son, Tyler, is 19 and had hoped 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 somewhere,” says Tyler. “But it’s too risky now to think that there are opportunities [at Tata] for me.”

Jason with family
Jason Wyatt on the beach with his family

As Jason and his family take a windswept walk on the town’s beach with their dogs, their gaze is drawn towards the harbour where the cranes used to unload iron ore from around the world, dominate the view.

But out to sea, hope could 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 the football pitch-sized platforms that the turbines will sit on.

But this potential new chapter in the story of Britain’s journey to a greener economy still seems too far away for the steelworkers.

Swansea bay boat drone

Ashley Curnow, a divisional manager for Associated British Ports in Wales, hopes the towns along the shore like Port Talbot will benefit from the new development.

“I understand there’s an immense amount of worry at the moment throughout the community, and I think our role in this project is to deliver the project, as soon as we can and bring those job opportunities forward.”

At home, Jason and his family reflect on what the future might hold.

His wife, Stacey, thinks Tata is treating its workers unfairly.

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

“It’s a hard time for all of us,” Jason adds. “We’ve got to fight to protect our livelihoods”.

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