Just journalism left as jute joins jam

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The Independent Online
BRITAIN'S JUTE industry, which shaped the city of Dundee and forged one of the nation's grittiest working-class communities, will reach the point of no return this week.

The end, when it comes, will be without ceremony. A cargo ship, the Banglar Urmi, will arrive at Dundee docks on the Tay from Bangladesh - probably today - and discharge some bales of raw jute, as ships have done for decades.

But the 310 tons of fibre will be the last to come ashore in Dundee. Once the consignment is spun into yarn for carpet backing, all that will be left of an industry that employed 50,000 people in its heyday will be a heritage museum and bitter-sweet memories.

Tay Spinners, the last jute spinner in the EU, thinks it need not have been like that. The mill will close and its 80 employees will be made redundant shortly before Christmas. But the company believes it could have survived if only the European Commission had enforced its rules against imports of cheaper yarn from the Far East.

The firm believes it should have had a ready market in Belgium, Europe's biggest carpet maker. William McLellan, chairman and managing director, is "blazing mad" that months spent lobbying Brussels and British ministers to get Customs to act has come to nothing. Jute was the first of the three `Js' that made Dundee famous, with jam and journalism.

Many employed in jute spinning and weaving were Irish immigrants and Highlanders; slum conditions were worse than those in Glasgow until well into this century. By the Second World War the worst slums had been cleared but the number of workers needed by the mill owners was down to 25,000. There was severe unemployment. The industry's decline accelerated in the 1960s. Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) could process its own jute fibre to a high standard and had low labour costs. By the early 1990s Dundee was down to three jute spinners and one weaving plant.

Tay Spinners continued making quality yarn to back Axminster and Wilton carpets. The raw jute on the Banglar Urmi amounts to a tenth of what the company would need if it had what Mr McLellan believes is its rightful share of the Belgian market.

Replacing textile jobs has not come easy for Dundee and has cost millions of pounds of public money. But today unemployment, at 7 per cent, is a shade above the Scottish average and the city council is optimistic about absorbing the redundancies at Tay Spinners.

Despite the accent, Dundee is a favoured location for call centres; 40 per cent of the nation's "hole-in-the-wall" cash dispensers are made in the city by NCR, and DC Thomson is keeping the third `J' alive with a stack of newspapers alongsaid The Beano and Dandy comics. As for jam - an industry founded on the raspberries of Tayside - that preceded jute into the history book with the closure of Keillers 10 years ago.

"The jute industry has been extremely good for the city but the thing now is to look forward," said a council spokesman. He meant to sound positive but at Tay Spinners it will only fuel suspicion that the city fathers want to "get rid of the jute", as it blemishes the city's shiny new image.