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

Closing the blast furnaces at Port Talbot could reduce UK emissions by 2%, but would result in 2,800 job losses

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.”

Read more: Postal workers demand further protections amid takeover

Employees should be involved in and communicated with about the need for change and sustainable practices, Dee added.

She continued: “Balancing people priorities with sustainability demands is challenging yet crucial. The key is focusing on transparent communication, employee involvement and transition support. 

“For any business, clearly explaining the long-term benefits of change is essential. Involving employees through green committees and training programmes helps foster ownership. 

“If job cuts are sadly necessary, phased redundancies with extended notice periods can give employees time to prepare.”

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.

Read more: Commitment to sustainability boosts employee engagement

Jonathan Firth, vice president of recruitment for HR solutions provider LHH, told HR magazine that employers' commitment to sustainability could be communicated from the hiring process onwards, to avoid appearing as greenwashing.

Firth continued: "Employers can signal their commitment to sustainability by providing transparency about the organisation's sustainability initiatives, achievements and future plans, and integrating this into every stage of the hiring process.

“This includes incorporating sustainability criteria into job descriptions and interview questions to ensure alignment with the company's values and goals.”

He added that employers should offer employees opportunities to engage with sustainability throughout their career.

"Offering opportunities for professional development and involvement in sustainability projects can further reinforce the organisation's dedication to environmental stewardship and social responsibility,” he said.