Page last updated at 09:30 GMT, Monday, 20 July 2009 10:30 UK

Stumping for steel the Welsh way

By Caroline Mallan
BBC Panorama

B Muthuraman, Belinda Newton
Belinda Newton met the head of Tata Steel, B Muthuraman

Belinda Newton is the granddaughter of a steelworker, the daughter of a steelworker, the sister of a steelworker and a friend and neighbour to thousands of steelworkers in the industrial heartland of Port Talbot.

She has also become, quite by accident, the town's advocate-in-chief.

In agreeing to take on the job as "citizen journalist" for a BBC documentary about the threat facing her town's steel industry, Belinda, 51, embarked on a mission that landed her thousands of miles away from home putting the hard questions directly to the head of one of the world's biggest steel companies - Tata - at the company's Mumbai headquarters.

"I never realized how big they were, I didn't know anything about Tata and all the other things they did and the range of businesses they've got," Belinda said of her crash course in both the politics and the economics of an industry that, at least in the UK, was on shaky ground even before the downturn hit.

I never thought I'd be caught in a monsoon and jumping on a train and I was soaked to the skin, I was tired and I was so angry that I might miss my chance
Belinda Newton

Now it finds itself with more plants, capacity and employees than current demand levels can support and the foreign owners say they need to cut costs as a matter of urgency.

Corus Steel, owned by Tata Group since 2007, has already announced 4,500 job cuts from its UK workforce of 24,000. With its sister plant at Llanwern in Newport already mothballed, the people of Port Talbot - population 36,000 - are on tenterhooks about their own future.

'Cut costs'

They have been told their plant is costing the parent company almost £1m a day and that annual savings of £250m are required if it is to remain viable.

Relying on a combination of hard facts, candour and charm, Belinda learns all she can before setting out to convince the people at the top of the industry that her town is worth saving, that the hard-working people of Port Talbot deserve a chance to compete on a global scale.

Tony Kelly, Belinda Newton, Stephen Quick
Belinda with fellow 'citizen journalists' Tony Kelly (L) and Stephen Quick

For this they need investment in technologies and equipment to ensure that their production costs are not drastically undercut by outfits in China and India, where set up and labour costs are cheaper.

When her request for an interview is turned down by Kirby Adams, the new chief executive of Corus Steel, Belinda admits she is "gobsmacked".

Barred from filming with her crew on their property, Belinda instead dropped off her written questions for Mr Adams, leaving her queries with a guard at the gatehouse.

"It's just the next generation that you worry about the most, that is the scariest part of it because if you cannot provide jobs then the young ones will have nothing to do, won't they?" she said.

Tata Steel is the Indian-based giant that two years ago bought the Dutch-Anglo owned Corus, the UK's largest producer. The move took Tata from being 56th to fifth in the world in terms of steel-making capacity.

Soaked, tired, angry

When Belinda could not get beyond the front gates at Corus, she went knocking instead on its parent company's door in Mumbai and was granted a meeting with B Muthuraman, the firm's managing director.

Port Talbot was a fantastic plant at one point in time, today it's not competitive
B Muthuraman, managing director, Tata Steel

Battling monsoon rains, Mumbai's legendary traffic congestion and flooded railway tracks, Belinda and her frazzled film crew were more than two hours late in reaching the Tata Steel head office for their scheduled appointment.

"I've never done anything like that in my life, I never thought I'd be caught in a monsoon and jumping on a train and I was soaked to the skin, I was tired and I was so angry that I might miss my chance, these are busy people and they had agreed to meet us and here I was, more than two hours late," she said.

Mr Muthuraman was candid in his assessment of Port Talbot; he told Belinda that it had to become more efficient and it had to do so in a hurry if it was to be spared.

"Port Talbot was a fantastic plant at one point in time, today it's not competitive, but for the last two years it has started operating well," he told Belinda.

Tata steel plant
Corus, part of Tata Steel, employs roughly 24,000 people in the UK

He added that the entire UK steel industry needed to become more competitive and gave her a timeline of the next three years to turn itself around.

"But if it doesn't then you have this big danger of this whole thing coming crashing down," he said.

Belinda said that while his message was ominous, there was cause for some hope and a sense that with the right attitude towards embracing change, it is not impossible to save the plant.

"I can't fault them, I really can't," she said. "He said what he meant and I appreciate that and it has me thinking more about what the government here can and should be doing for these men, these families."

As to what comes next, Belinda says she is not finished in her role as steel champion of Port Talbot.

Subsidy request

"I am not a quitter and I do like to finish what I started," she said.

Tata's Mr Muthuraman has a scheduled visit to the town next month and asked Belinda if she is free to meet up again.

Corus has requested direct government aid to keep its employees in jobs - a request that has, thus far, been rejected in favour of support going instead to the industries that are the biggest buyers of steel, such as the auto sector.

In Holland, the government administers a fund that is paid into by employers and employees in prosperous times that can then be used as a wage subsidy for Corus' Dutch arm during a slump. UK steelworkers argue this puts plants around Britain and the people of Port Talbot, at a competitive disadvantage.

The UK Government argues that without revamping the entire jobseekers system, Britain cannot replicate the Dutch system.

"I'd rather see 3,000 men in work than 3,000 jobless on the dole, claiming benefit and losing everything. This is not just 3,000 men, it is 3,000 families," she said. "It's all well and good for government to say we'll retrain you but to do what? To work where?"

Belinda said the town fears that if large scale layoffs come to Port Talbot, not only will families and young people have to move away to find work, the skilled workforce will be eroded, further damaging the town's global competitiveness.

"We won't have the men ready for when things improve, will we?"

Panorama: Save our Steel, BBC One, Monday, 20 July at 2030BST.


Belinda: Save our steel industry

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