TUC 'austerity bus' visits struggling West Midlands towns as it tours country to highlight the impact of Coalition cuts on UK workers and families
ON MATERNITY LEAVE. Charlotte Philby is a writer and reporter at The Independent, currently based on the news desk after six years on the Saturday magazine. She has been shortlisted for the 2013 Cudlipp award for excellence in popular journalism for an undercover investigative into a website offering students up to £15,000 in return for sex. She has also written for cultural magazines including Dazed & Confused and NYLON and contributed to several books, among them a biography of French street artist Blek Le Rat. A mother and born-and-bred Londoner, she spends most of her free time working on her first crime fiction novel.
Friday 21 June 2013
Paul Mason has worked in the same factory in Cannock, Staffordshire, for 29 years. When he joined the business, which makes plastic parts for the automobile industry, it was the third biggest factory in town, employing around 500 people. Nearly three decades on, the number of staff has dropped to just 120.
With numerous factories and shops in the area having folded in the past few years, this part of the West Midlands has been hit hard by the recent recession with 15.8 per cent more bankruptcies and liquidations than the south west and south east.
With that in mind, staff at BI Composites, as the factory was called before it was bought out by British company Linecross and saved from receivership at the end of last year, are grateful for what they've got after - a job. Although for employees like Mr Mason, a fibre glass cutter who was once at the top of his trade, it comes with constant fear of redundancy and a pay freeze with rates barely above minimum wage.
“But it's a job, and a job's a job. Whatever they say, I'll do because it pays my wages,” Mr Mason said. “It's better than dole money and that's the choice we've got.”
The West Midlands was once the heart of Britain's pottery industry, a part of the country which flourished during the Industrial Revolution before the steel, ceramics and mining industries fell into decline in the 1980s.
Since then the continual erosion of its founding trades, resulting in high levels of unemployment, compounded by recent Government cuts, has had a grave impact on this once-thriving British town.
Cannock is one of the first stops for the Trade Unions Congress [TUC]'s 'Austerity Uncovered' bus, which for two weeks will be touring the country, packed with staff collating the stories of local people in an effort to highlight the impact of Coalition cuts on workers and families across the UK.
“It's got really bad,” said Stephen Wigley, 57, a local CNC operator told The Independent “They're shutting places down, pulling places down – factories, shops.
“You go through Brown Hill [the next town along from Cannock] and it's a ghost town. Half the places have shut down, all that's left is take aways and charity shops.”
In order to meet the rising cost of gas and electricity and pay the bills, Alf Tarbuck, 57, who works in health and safety at BI Linecross (as it is now known), and whose wife lost her job at a nursery with two hours notice last year when the business suddenly folded, said: “You don't go for a drink anymore. You don't have meals. You sit in your house and you watch telly, if you can afford the licence. That's all you can do.”
The number of people relying on food banks has tripled in 12 months with more than half a million people in the UK lining up for food donations last year, according to a recent study by Church Action Poverty and Oxfam. The number of users of food bank services in the West Midlands is nearly 14,000 according to recent figures from the Trussell Trust.
On a Tuesday afternoon at a Methodist Church on Hednesford Road, where the bus pulled up yesterday to speak to a growing number of people who rely on this food bank in Heath Hayes – one of three in the area - there were people queueing up to receive small amounts of cereal, pasta and tinned goods.
Joanne Turner, 37, a mother of six with two disabled children who has been hit by increased living costs and relationship problems, said: “Without the food bank I wouldn't have been able to put food on my kids' plates.
“I have recently had to go cap-in-hand to neighbours and friends for food. I have to ration what food I give to my children.”
David Spencer, operation manager at the centre, added: “We have people with a variety of stories coming in. One guy came in who two years ago had his own business and drove a Range Rover.
“He lost everything through no fault of his own and ended up homeless. He told me he cried the first time he had to use a voucher for the food bank.”
The numbers signing up for help in are not expected to fall any time soon.
In the first three months of this year, unemployment in the West Midlands rose by 16,000 with the number of job losses for women the highest since records began two decades ago, at 117,000.
Paul Mason's 30-year-old niece has just got her first job in eight years, stacking shelves from 5am-10am. “That's all she can get,” he said. “People around here are worried sick about losing their jobs because there is nothing else. “Last year, I cancelled Christmas, all the presents had to go back“.
With his job secure for the moment at least, albeit at a reduced wage, Paul Mason is cautiously hopeful. “Last year I thought it was all over. This year we're hoping to have a holiday at my brother's caravan.”
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