Tata dispute shows employers must balance sustainability targets with workers’ rights

Unite the union has announced plans to escalate industrial action at steelworks in Port Talbot and Llanwern in South Wales

7 Jun 2024| News

Unite the union has announced plans to escalate industrial action at steelworks in Port Talbot and Llanwern in South Wales, The Guardian reported (3 June).

The action comes as part of ongoing disputes with the steelworks owner, Tata Steel, over 3,300 proposed job losses and threatened cuts to redundancy pay.

Tata rejected a trade union plan this year to keep Port Talbot’s blast furnaces running, and told workers’ representatives that it would halt production at Port Talbot as part of its four-year transition plan towards greener production.

Sustainability should not be prioritised over people, said Alice Dee, sustainability manager at Secret Linen Store. She told HR magazine:

“Sustainability efforts are crucial, but they shouldn’t sacrifice talent. Aligning sustainability initiatives with workforce planning can minimise negative impacts. Incentives for innovation in sustainable practices can create new roles.

Actions must respect employees’ rights, with fair redundancy packages and support for affected staff. Engaging with unions and worker representatives ensures fairness and transparency.”

Unite general secretary Sharon Graham said:

“Tata has miscalculated, its workers know a better future is possible and they will be taking industrial action to fight for it, with Unite using every tool at its disposal to make the company change course.

This hugely wealthy company knows UK steel capacity and jobs can be retained as the transition is made to green steel. Tata’s disastrous deal with the current government would only see its other overseas operations take advantage of the coming boom in green steel at the expense of South Wales.”

The Guardian suggested that the dispute between Tata and Unite would become a general election issue. Tata and the Conservative Party agreed last year that the company would receive £500 million in state subsidies to move to new greener furnaces, which would involve closing the blast furnaces and trigger job losses from June 2024.

However, Labour has offered £3 billion for the transition to green steel, and would keep the blast furnaces in operation while green furnaces were built, to save jobs.

Sharon Graham continued:

“Unite and its members will not tolerate Tata’s bully boy tactics and neither should Labour. The union is now preparing to escalate industrial action in direct response to the company’s threats.

The company is trying to hold the country to ransom, while needlessly throw thousands of workers on the scrapheap. If Tata is not prepared to do the right thing, then an incoming Labour government must ensure it does.

Tata’s actions show the fundamental problem with private multinational companies owning the UK’s foundation industries. It has no concern for the long-term economic damage and harm its action will cause in the UK.”

The redundancy pay cut threat was part of an extraordinary 900 plus word communication to Tata workers sent by chief executive officer Rajesh Nair that was sent late on Friday evening (31 May) to the company’s workforce (see notes to editors for full details.)

Unite believes that the threat of speeding up the closure of the blast furnaces is the latest part of Tata’s plans to turn Port Talbot into a satellite site for at least the next five years, while it imports hot rolled coil and slab steel, from India and its other overseas operations and badges it as produced in the UK.

Unite secretary for Wales Peter Hughes said:

“Workers will not be blackmailed. Unite never takes a backward step in supporting our members in their fight to preserve their jobs pay and conditions and the workers at Tata have the union’s complete support.”