‘We have to fight for our livelihood’: Port Talbot’s uncertain future as the costs of going green become apparent

“Workers united, will never be defeated!” a man shouts into a loud megaphone. 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 protesters hold up signs about workers’ rights and fair pay.

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

There is applause as Jason takes the stage.

Jason speech during protest march
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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, on the south coast of Wales, for 125 years.

Today the large, extensive site is owned by Tata Steelan Indian company that employs about half of the 8,000 workers in Port Talbot.

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

tata steel drone

But the UK steel industry is struggling to stay competitive in a fierce global market, meaning an uncertain future for communities like Port Talbot.

In 2019, Britain produced seven million tonnes of steel, second only to seven EU countries – including Germany’s 40 million tonnes. Meanwhile, China produced 996 million tons.

Steel mills also cost enormous amounts of money to operate because they consume enormous amounts of energy.

The Port Talbot factory has by far the largest bill and, for example, uses as much electricity as the entire town of Swansea, a few miles along the motorway.

The amounts are incorrect, says Tata Steel. It claims its UK operations are losing £1 million a day.

New location for Tata Steel electric arc furnaces

The other major problem facing the company and its factory in Port Talbot is how polluting it is. The steelworks is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in Britain.

And Tata believes that by switching from its existing coal-fired blast furnace to a greener way of making steel – using scrap as fuel – Britain’s overall CO2 emissions could be reduced by around 1.5 percent.

The British government has done that agreed to pay Tata £500 million towards the construction of a new electric arc furnace.

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

The push for green is costing jobs in Port Talbot. And that’s a dilemma facing businesses in the UK – and around the world.

Hot oven sparks from Tata Steel

“Tata is asking people to bail out the company at the cost of losing their jobs. It’s terrible,” said Jason, who has worked at the Port Talbot factory for 25 years.

According to the Resolution Foundation think tank, 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.

But the figures on the costs of green are disputed.

The TUC estimates that 800,000 jobs in the manufacturing and supply chain could disappear without government support.

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

The government says Britain has become 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 since 2020.

“Much of the transferable expertise from sectors such as steel mills and the oil and gas sector will be crucial to the transition to net zero,” a government spokesperson said.

“And our Green Jobs Plan will ensure we have sufficient skills to address emerging and future labor demand across the economy.”

The factory is hot and there is a smell of sulfur in the air, a byproduct of the production process. Peter Quinn is leading Tata’s move into green steel.

He says the idea that the arc furnace could be operational within four years is still “approximate” and would require consultation with stakeholders, including workers, first.

Tata steelworker

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 to completely halt steel production at Port Talbot.

Jason believes that Tata should opt for a more gradual transition, so that no layoffs are necessary.

“We are not against the green steel agenda,” he says. “What we are against is the way we are transitioning.”

This shift is already having consequences for his family. His son, Tyler, is 19 and had hoped to apply for an internship at Tata.

“I’m at a point in my life where I need to secure my future, buy a house and settle down somewhere,” says Tyler. ‘But it is too risky now to think there are opportunities [at Tata] for me.”

Jason with family
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Jason Wyatt on the beach with his family

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

But at 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 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 to a greener economy still seems too far away for steelworkers.

Swansea Bay boat drone

Ashley Curnow, division manager of Associated British Ports in Wales, hopes towns along the coast, such as Port Talbot, will benefit from the new development.

“I understand there is a tremendous amount of concern throughout the community at this time, and I think our role in this project is to complete the project as quickly as possible and bring those jobs forward.”

At home, Jason and his family ponder what the future might bring.

His wife Stacey believes that Tata treats its employees unfairly.

“I think what Tata Steel is doing to their employees is wrong. They don’t really care about the consequences for people and their families.”

“It’s a difficult time for all of us,” Jason added. “We have must fight to protect our livelihoods.”

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