Rotherham town centre bears the scars of the current recession – with growing numbers of high street shops boarded up and empty. But one place still doing a thriving trade is the job centre.
Susan Wright is one of many looking for work. “There isn’t anything to apply for,” she says. Susan is 54 and has been out of work for over six months. “It’s getting harder to find work, especially at my age. It’s silly but you sometimes end up thinking it’s your fault.”
Rotherham is being devastated by the job losses currently sweeping Britain. The South Yorkshire town was hit by almost 1,000 job losses in just one week last month as steel giant Corus announced hundreds of redundancies and clothing manufacturer Burberry said it would shut its Rotherham factory.
“The job losses at Corus have had an impact on everybody,” says Susan. “People are very angry but what’s terrible is that it’s become accepted that jobs don’t last.
“I think everybody’s unhappy. Shops are shutting left, right and centre. Sometimes there’s part-time work but it’s often not worth doing it – after you’ve paid the bus fares and everything.
“And the jobs that are on offer are further to travel to. It sometimes feels like it’s not worth living – scratching and scraping around with bits of money.”
Two things are particularly striking about the current wave of job losses in the town.
The first is the utterly callous way that workers have been treated. Burberry workers, for example, heard about their impending redundancies from the TV news.
And time after time people say that their employers chose to tell them about job cuts just before Christmas, meaning that they spent their time off worrying about whether they would have a job to come back to.
The second is the way that unemployment has become a recurrent part of life for so many people.
One man at the job centre says he was made redundant on the Friday before Christmas from Outokumpu, the company that merged with Avesta Steel.
He worked on the polishing line, polishing stainless steel.
“I worked for the company for 18 years,” he says. “But there’s just less demand for steel now. What’s happening with all the jobs going is very serious.
“I’ve got a lot of friends who work at Corus – they’ll know in a couple of weeks whether they’ve still got jobs or not.”
Mick Turner is waiting outside the job centre for a friend. “My dad used to work at Orgreave coking plant,” he says. “When it shut it took him about a year and a half to find another job.”
Now he works at Corus. If he loses his job it’ll be hard for him to find another one because he’s getting on a bit.
“My sister used to work at Corus as well and left for a job at Norton Finance – but then she was made redundant from there.”
It feels like you can’t get away from unemployment in Rotherham. Several job agencies have set up offices in the town centre promising to help people looking for work.
Connexions, the organisation that deals with jobs and training for young people, has its office next to a boarded up shop. Opposite this is Phoenix – another private sector employment agency – where groups of young people congregate outside.
Jo is a key worker at Rain, yet another agency launched last year to get long-term unemployed people back to work.
The workers have targets to meet to get people into jobs – but Jo says it is getting harder and harder to find any work for people.
Darren Scanlan is an ex-miner who has lived in Rotherham all his life. He took voluntary redundancy from Toyoda Gosei last month.
The company makes rubber seals for car doors and windows – and the crisis in the car industry means demand for the components is dropping.
“At first the company put a notice up saying that it wanted to make ten team leaders redundant,” Darren explains.
“For four weeks they put these team leaders through absolute hell. One who was made redundant was a 58 year old ex-steel worker.
“The year before he’d had time off with bad arthritis in his shoulder and they used that as a reason to get rid of him.”
Darren decided to take voluntary redundancy out of fear that if the company made compulsory redundancies he would be targeted.
“I had raised a lot of health and safety issues at work and challenged the managers about conditions,” he says.
Darren was told on the Friday before Christmas that the company was seeking voluntary redundancies.
“I can’t believe how the company has treated people,” he said. “The stress made some people ill.
“The firm was built on a wasteland where steelworks once stood. It gave a lot of ex-steelworkers and ex-miners who hadn’t been able to get back into work a job. Now people will be out of work again.”
The impact of previous job losses in the pits and in steel is still being felt in the town.
Many of those who lost their jobs in the 1980s and early 1990s never found work again.
Heroin and alcohol abuse shot up in areas where swathes of people had been thrown on the dole.
Rotherham is traditionally a solid Labour-supporting town. Today that’s changing. “I’ve always been a staunch Labour supporter,” says Darren. “But Blair did it for me – with the Iraq war and everything. Ordinary people seem to have been abandoned.”
The unofficial strikes on construction sites and oil refineries using the slogan “British Jobs For British Workers” have made an impact on some people.
Outside the job centre people are discussing the strikes.
One person says that he’s “not racist but people born in Britain should be housed and given work first”.
Others agree that workers from all backgrounds have to fight together to save jobs.
There is a danger that the British National Party (BNP) could capitalise on the bitterness and despair that exist in Rotherham. Two BNP councillors were elected in the town in May last year.
“The BNP play on people’s fears,” says Darren. “People don’t realise what they’re really like. I wouldn’t be here now if it was up to them because I am of Irish descent and, of course, I’m a trade unionist.
“But it’s daunting that there’s a hell of a lot of people in this town going to be out of work and I just hope that some sections don’t start taking it out on other people. That would be sad for everybody.”
People in Rotherham are organising against the fascists. Local activists, trade unionists and young people held a fantastic Love Music Hate Racism (LMHR) event last September, which attracted some 4,500 people. It was the largest LMHR indoor event ever held.
Since then people have organised various activities to drive back the influence of the Nazis. Activists in Unite Against Fascism (UAF) took part in a mass leafleting of the Brinsworth area this week and are building for a Yorkshire UAF conference in March.
Rotherham desperately needs a fightback over jobs. Unfortunately some activists say that they don’t always get the support they expect from their union leaderships.
Darren was a shop steward for the Unite union at Toyoda but gave up his position because he was angry at how the union operated.
“Unite has done nothing,” he said. “I was disgusted. I phoned union officials in Sheffield for advice when I became a rep and was told to be careful about what I said because the company might find a way of getting rid of me!
“It wasn’t really what I wanted to hear from the union officials.
“When I told them what was happening at Toyoda they said that there were so many people of different nationalities at the plant that they couldn’t communicate with them.
“I told them to produce leaflets in different languages. Apparently there used to be more people in the union but when it didn’t support them over pay people left.
“There’s only about 16 percent of the workforce in the union now. It’s disheartening. There aren’t enough people speaking out on behalf of the workers.”
Meanwhile at Burberry the GMB union has not, so far, organised to fight the job losses. But there are trade unionists fighting to defend jobs and pay.
Workers at the Yorkshire Post newspaper are due to strike for four days from Thursday over job losses.
Unison union members in Rotherham council may soon be balloting for strike action over a single status deal that will leave some workers up to £1,900 worse off a year.
Earlier this month, lecturers at two Rotherham colleges struck over the failure of their managements to implement a pay deal that was nationally agreed four years ago.
And the South Yorkshire NUJ journalists’ union, together with the UCU and PCS unions, have booked a coach to take people to the TUC “Put People First” protest for jobs in London on 28 March.
“The NUJ is trying to give a lead in the fight over jobs,” says Phil Turner, an NUJ activist in Rotherham.
“We’re working with people in other unions, especially in areas where people are facing job losses, to build a united response in the town.
“We want to give workers from Corus and Burberry and other firms facing job losses the chance to take their protest to world leaders.”
Activists plan to hold a public meeting over job losses in the town which they hope will be a launchpad for local protests to defend jobs.
Rotherham may be a town which has seen many attacks on workers – but it is also a town that has a strong tradition of fighting back.
‘Nobody is building anything’
For Rotherham’s remaining steel workers, the future is looking increasingly insecure.
Steel worker Richard explains, “Across the industry everyone’s on short time or bare time.
“We’ve lost all our overtime. There used to be a day and night shift but they got rid of the night shift just before Christmas.
“The firms were saying that work would pick up in February and March but it’s not happening.
“The job losses are everywhere. My girlfriend worked in a call centre but even that’s closed down now.”
“The fact that people aren’t buying steel has an effect on so many other jobs,” adds Ryan. “We fabricate a lot of steel for the building industry.
“But nobody’s building anything.
“You’ve got building sites that have been left with just the foundations and buildings that have been left part-way through because people are cutting their losses.
“Even since Christmas it’s got worse. Jobs that were there aren’t now.”
Dave, another steelworker, points out that the job losses at places such as Corus will lead to more people being laid off.
“The knock-on effect will be immense – the sandwich shops and corner shops that workers go to, the people who clean the overalls, the people who clean the buildings – I feel sorry for them.
“Meanwhile the government’s doing nowt.”