Thousands of workers at Liberty Steel fear for their jobs. They are caught in a web of dodgy financial deals, ruthlessly profiteering billionaires and government sleaze.
There is speculation about its future and it is asking its customers to pay up front. That’s because its main financial backer, Greensill Capital, went bust two weeks ago.
This is the finance firm that former Tory prime minister David Cameron advises. He personally lobbied senior figures in the Treasury and Downing Street to try to help it secure greater access to state-backed Covid-19 loan schemes.
Meanwhile in 2020 Carwyn Jones, the former first minister of Wales, took up a position on the "global advisory board" of GFG Alliance—Liberty's parent company. Jones was censured for taking up the post by an oversight body that advises on business roles for former members of government.
There is a complicated network of money and business interests where rich people move around hundreds of millions of pounds to make profits.
But it’s a world away from ordinary people’s lives.
Lee Bradshaw has worked at the Liberty steel plant in Rotherham for 36 years. First it was owned by British Steel, then Corus Group, then Tata Steel. In 2017 billionaire Sanjeev Gupta’s Liberty Steel took over.
Lee told YorkshireLive website, “In the 36 years I’ve been here there are problems every five years.
“But this time has been unique. Rotherham looks like it’s struggling to survive and we've got full order books.
“We’ve been furloughed now and we were furloughed before, but this time we’re all feeling we didn’t ought to be on furlough.
“It’s started to dawn on people there might be something wrong.
“The government said they couldn’t help the steel industry before because it was against EU rules. It’s time the prime minister put his money where his mouth is.”
There’s no shortage of cash to secure workers’ jobs.
Gupta splashed out on a six-storey £42 million house in London’s Belgravia last year.
According to the Financial Times newspaper, he has taken ownership of a vast range of properties in the last six years. They span a “sprawling Welsh countryside estate, a colonial Sydney mansion, the Belgravia townhouse and 114,000 acres in the Scottish Highlands, including the foothills of Ben Nevis.
“In Sydney, where Gupta relocated his family after buying a South Australia steelworks in 2017, friends recall boat trips around the Sydney Harbour on his 31-metre yacht.”
There were “300-strong cocktail parties attended by former Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and an extensive Scotch collection.”
In 2016 the Scottish government granted Gupta special access to Edinburgh Castle. He was seen as a saviour of jobs in steel and other industries.
But it was revealed this week that fewer than 50 of a promised 2,000 new jobs have been created as a result of Gupta’s takeover of Britain’s last aluminium smelter.
Fergus Ewing, the SNP rural economy secretary, said the 44 additional people had been hired since the Scottish Government agreed to provide a financial guarantee. It was estimated to be worth £575 million, to Gupta.
Unfortunately, the trade union leaders are not prepared to confront the steel bosses. Instead earlier this month the National Trade Union Steel Coordinating Committee made the most snivelling statement.
It detailed how the “steel unions—Community, Unite and GMB—met with Sanjeev Gupta to seek assurances on behalf of our members”.
It was said to be “positive and constructive”. The unions said they understand “Mr Gupta’s desire to see Liberty Steel succeed, and recognise also his personal contribution in giving distressed UK steel assets a new lease of life.”
The same statement enthused that the unions had also been allowed to meet business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng.
And again they were “encouraged by government’s commitment to taking on this challenge.” And by “the growing consensus that to build back better and greener we need a strong and sustainable steel industry”.
In fact that Tories are reported—at best—to be preparing to replay the tactics used in 2019 when British Steel collapsed. It stepped in to pay the firm’s running costs and then sold it to another multinational. Over 400 jobs were destroyed.
Labour will probably back such moves while trumpeting alongside the government a raft of “Buy British” nonsense. Every government across the world backs its own steelmaker and denounces steel imports—while at the same time insisting that it must have the right to export to every other country.
Despite the unions’ claims, the beginning of wisdom is to recognise that the government and the bosses are the enemy, with interests irreconcilably opposed to workers.
The steel industry should be taken back into democratic public ownership, with all the multinationals and fat cats compensated with precisely nothing.
And steelworkers have to unite across the world to confront firms who set them against one another.