Keir Starmer has warned that the government “must intervene” to resolve the dispute over a proposed cut of 350 UK jobs at Rolls-Royce and expressed “solidarity” with the workers currently on strike at the engineering firm.
The Labour leader spoke out following confirmation on Thursday that another 140 jobs are at risk at aero-engine giant Rolls-Royce’s Barnoldswick plant in Lancashire. They are set to be lost as part of plans to cut around 9,000 jobs worldwide.
The company announced details of its plans to reduce its manufacturing capacity earlier this week, with the proposals affecting sites in areas such as Lancashire and the Midlands, amid a collapse in global demand for air travel.
“We need more high skilled jobs like theirs, instead of allowing them to be offshored,” Starmer tweeted. “The government must intervene, work with Rolls Royce and get around the table with workers to resolve the dispute.”
The opposition leader’s intervention comes after Shadow Secretary for Employment Rights Andy McDonald joined workers over a video call on the picket line at the Barnoldswick plant on Thursday morning as the workers protested.
Sharing a photo of Rolls-Royce workers taking “action against hundreds of jobs being shipped overseas”, McDonald said: “It’s an outrage that a company currently securing billions of taxpayer money can cut jobs in the UK to offshore work.”
The Labour leadership as a whole has taken a strong line on the issue, with deputy leader Angela Rayner also commenting on the action today, arguing that the government needed to step in and “fight for every job and every worker”.
Unite the Union has accused Rolls-Royce of “choking the company’s future” with its plans to cut hundreds of jobs and move work currently based in the UK to Singapore and Germany, and said the timing ahead of Christmas “stinks”.
National officer Rhys McCarthy said: “Workers have been left fearing for their futures as Christmas approaches. This announcement amounts to a death by a thousand cuts, which will send a chill through Rolls-Royce’s workers and the entire supply chain.
“Choking the company’s future like this is clearly about pacifying the city and shareholders in the short term, while disregarding the hopes and concerns of workers and their families.” Unite is arguing for the decision to be “reversed”.
McCarthy has confirmed that Unite is willing to enter into negotiations with the company to preserve jobs and guarantee a future for UK manufacturing plants, describing apprentices as “the future life blood of the company”.
The union officer also attributed part of the blame for the job losses on the UK government, which he said had “failed to provide specific support to the aerospace sector” during the coronavirus pandemic despite it being hit hard.
Writing for LabourList last month, Labour MP Grahame Morris said the cuts were a “complete betrayal of a loyal and dedicated workforce” and called for government support for the company to be conditional on protecting jobs at UK sites.
“It is particularly galling that Rolls-Royce is seeking to benefit from billions of pounds of taxpayer support, yet refuses to use this taxpayer-funded lifeline to keep valuable jobs in the UK,” Morris added.
Anneliese Dodds said Labour had “called for government support to be conditional on ensuring jobs and businesses in the UK were protected” and firms are now “seeking support at the same time as offshoring jobs elsewhere”.
Rolls-Royce has said the Barnoldswick site will not be closed as it will become a product development and technical support centre and will continue to manufacture blades for a range of defence and civil aerospace applications.
Rolls-Royce’s president of civil aerospace Chris Cholerton said the restructuring plans were designed to create a “stronger, more efficient and sustainable business”, though noted the changes would be “hugely upsetting” for workers.
“This is a very difficult proposal to make, but we cannot afford to retain every Rolls-Royce factory that was supported by demand that has been dramatically reduced by the pandemic,” Cholerton said.
“No government support scheme can replace sustainable customer demand and no government can sign up to extending the sort of short-term measures we have been very grateful for, over multiple years.”
Earlier this year, Labour called for a “robust plan” to protect jobs in the aviation sector during the Covid-19 pandemic while also setting out conditions to aid a just transition to a green economy to tackle climate change.
Following the announcement of the ‘Test to Release’ scheme for airports last month, Shadow Transport Secretary Jim McMahon said the government had been “incompetently slow to react” to calls for support for the sector.
He said: “It will take a long time to recover from the impact of the virus. The government must come up with the sector-specific plan it promised for the aviation sector and its supply chain that supports almost a quarter of a million jobs and protects the environment.”
The Test to Release for International Travel scheme for those who need to self-isolate on arrival in England, starting from December 15th, will allow people to pay for a private Covid-19 test and stop self-isolating sooner.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has received criticism after announcing on Thursday that “high-value” business travellers will no longer need to self-isolate when returning to England from a country not in a travel corridor.
Labour MP Ben Bradshaw tweeted: “Is this a joke? What Is high value? So the government lets its rich mates in quarantine-free, while the rest of us trying to see our loved ones for Christmas have to quarantine for five days & then pay £150 for a test.”