Welsh steelworkers warn of hard Brexit devastation — Roy Haig

Shaun Murphy, Tata Steel.

Welsh steelworkers have warned of the devastating impact of a hard Brexit.

Shaun Murphy, a fabricator-welder and GMB union learning representative said:

“I’ve been working here for forty years and seen a lot of changes. Brexit could be one of the biggest changes we see.”

The Welsh steel industry relies on the ability to sell goods into the European single market and customs union. Shaun said that Tata Steel Port Talbot relies on selling its products to the rest of Europe both directly and indirectly.

“If we left the single market and the customs union, new tariff barriers would be put in place which would make it much harder to sell Welsh steel to the rest of Europe. Tariff barriers can either be monetary — so actual money you’d have to pay — or non-tariff barriers — that is regulations that you’d have to follow to sell to the EU.

“Two-thirds of what we produce here goes to the UK — to UK car manufacturers predominantly who then sell to the EU. The other third of our production goes directly to the EU.

“It will affect us if we have a hard Brexit and I think it could mean the end of this industry in the UK.”

Staff at Port Talbot are particularly concerned about the potential impact of a hard Brexit which would require customs checks between Wales and its continental markets.

Mark Turner, Steelworker.

Mark Turner, a Unite representative and steelworker at Port Talbot likened leaving the single market and customs union to putting tolls back onto the Severn bridge — only with far worse effects.

“Imagine the tolls weren’t there now and all of a sudden we decided to put the tolls on,” he said. “Can you imagine the mayhem that would ensue if every car is going to have to stop at the border between Wales and England and pay a toll? Now imagine the mayhem if every lorry had to stop and deal with the paperwork that would go with exporting outside the single market. That’s the mayhem that’s going to happen at our ports. I don’t think people fully understand how much is involved in one lorry going across a border — let alone thousands a day.”

Shaun Murphy said: “We’re in the EU now and automotive products made from Welsh steel can go in a van to other parts of the EU with no trouble at all, with no paperwork on either side of the border.

“Switzerland is outside the customs union and this means there is a higher cost, more paperwork and more delays involved in selling auto components to the rest of Europe. The BBC showed the paperwork for one Swiss lorry exporting goods to the EU and the paperwork was eight inches high! There were papers for every article in that one lorry. The cost of the paperwork must be astronomical.”

Trade unions are particularly concerned about the potential of a hard Brexit to lead to large-scale jobs losses.

Mark Turner talked about the number of livelihoods which are reliant on staying in the single market and customs union.

“There are 4,700 direct employees at Tata Steel Port Talbot,” he said. “If you then look at contractors and everybody who works on a day to day basis around the plant you’re looking at 10,000 people. That then does not include your local shops, your local garages, everything that goes alongside the community. So, you’re talking 10,000 would be directly affected if this plant were to shut and then the wider implications.”

Shaun Murphy said:

“A hard Brexit would be devastating for this area and the wider community, across south Wales. Some travel from Ebbw Vale, we’ve got boys here from down West, as far as Pembroke, working here, and up as far as mid-Wales. It’s not just people from Port Talbot that’ll get affected, it’s the whole of South Wales. It’s like a bomb going off — the people in the centre get hurt the most, but the people on the periphery also get hurt. That’s the way it’s going to be.

Jamie Maitland Thomas, Sinter plant Inspector.

Jamie Maitland Thomas, an inspector in the sinter plant and Unite union representative had little faith in the UK government’s commitment to supporting steel industry jobs.

“No matter what people say about the EU,” he said “when we were facing the threat of Chinese steel dumping, the EU voted to bring in countermeasures. The only major country to try to veto that deal was Britain. They were even parading the Presidency of China around, during the steel crisis. I don’t think they’ve got the steelworkers best interests at heart, the UK government.”

The Fabian Society in Wales