AFTER nearly a year of roller-coaster ups and downs in the fortunes of steelmaking at the Port Talbot plant, South Wales, workers and their families were relieved this month when a deal to save the works was finalised.
In January, the plant's Indian owners, Tata, announced more than 1000 redundancies across its UK establishment, including 750 from Port Talbot’s 4000 workforce (News, 22 January). Within weeks, that had turned into a threat of closure in the face of cheap Chinese imports and high energy prices.
The Church in Wales mobilised with offers of advice, support, prayers, and free debt-counselling. But, over the summer, hopes rose as potential rescue takeovers were mooted, only to founder on disputes over a multi-million-pound black hole in the pension scheme.
The news that the weak pound, caused by the Brexit vote, had made British-made steel more attractive to overseas buyers helped Tata to make its decision in December to keep Port Talbot’s blast furnaces open for up to ten years.
There was a proviso: that the unions agreed to changes in the pension scheme which would offer less generous retirement terms. Workers were due to ballot early in 2017.
Rick Hayes, a part-time industrial chaplain funded by Tata, said: “The company is telling us that we have between five and ten years of forward planning, which means there will be a safeguarding of jobs. There has got to be a relief there; but, at the moment, people are worried about the changes in their pensions.
“However, there is relief that they can at least look to the next few years, and there is still going to be a job. It does give them a breathing space: we now have stability.”
The Team Rector of Aberavon, Canon Nigel Cahill, whose parishes include the steelworks, said: “The simplest and most truthful message from here is that people are cautiously optimistic; but there are reservations, as the pension scheme still has to be worked out.
“Even until quite recently, people were not sure Tata was going to be able to turn things around. They are hopeful that this is going to bring some long-term future — not just to this community, but every community from which people travel to work at Port Talbot.”
He said that there had been little take-up, locally, of the church’s early offers of support, “but, in a way, that’s a good thing: people have not needed to ask. No one has lost their job. Meanwhile, the offer of help from the church is still there.
“People are still having to tighten their belts because of the general downturn in the economy; they find their money is not going as far as it once did. The benefits and tax changes announced in budgets two years ago are only now beginning to come into effect.”
The Assistant Bishop of Llandaff, the Rt Revd David Wilbourne, said: “The silver lining to the Brexit cloud was a reprieve. . . for which everyone is South Wales is extremely grateful.”