India’s Tata Steel is seeking to sell Britain’s biggest steelmaking business, putting thousands of jobs at risk in an industry that once dominated Britain but has been brought low by falling prices, high costs and Chinese competition.
After a marathon board meeting in Mumbai, Tata said it would draw a line under its almost decade-long foray into Britain’s steel industry, exiting the country entirely.
The move could have an impact on Britain’s closely fought vote in three months over whether to stay in the European Union. Britain’s traditionally anti-EU media have blamed Brussels for preventing London from taking greater steps to protect the industry, although supporters of membership say EU policy is not responsible for the industry’s plight.
Tata, which employs about 15,000 people in Britain at sites including the giant Port Talbot plant in Wales, said its financial performance in Britain had deteriorated sharply in recent months and it wanted to exit as quickly as possible.
The British government and the Welsh authorities said they were looking at all viable options to protect the steel industry, which has already shed thousands of jobs in just the last year.
“We are, and have, and continue to look at all options, and I mean all options. But what we first want to achieve from Tata is this period of time to allow a proper sale process,” Anna Soubry, a minister for business, told BBC radio.
She said she could not rule out the possibility of the government buying the plants until a new owner could be found.
The sale ramps up pressure on Prime Minister David Cameron’s right-leaning Conservative government, which has sought to cultivate closer ties with China.
Cameron’s fate hangs in the balance when Britain votes on whether to stay in the EU in May, and his government has sought to avoid controversies during the run-up to the vote.
The Conservatives are resented in Britain’s industrial heartlands for the demise of mining and manufacturing under former prime minister Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.
The government has said it is taking measures to help the steel sector but the fundamental problem remained the halving of steel prices in the past year, caused by overcapacity in China.
Once a driver of the economy through the 19th and 20th centuries, many of Britain’s former steel towns have been decimated by the industry’s decline since its peak in the 1970s.
The leader of the opposition Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn, called on the government to take a public stake in the industry which he called “the cornerstone of our manufacturing sector”.
Tata Steel bought Anglo-Dutch steelmaker Corus in 2007 and has since struggled to turn the giant around.
Port Talbot, though far from its 1960s peak, still employs about 4,000 people, and Tata is one of the most significant private companies in Wales.
Unions welcomed the decision not to shutter the plants but called on Tata to be a “responsible seller” and on the government to play its role.
“We don’t just want more warm words. We want a detailed plan of action to find buyers and build confidence in potential investors in UK steel,” Roy Rickhuss, general secretary of steelworkers’ trade union Community, said.
Steelmakers in Britain pay some of the highest energy costs and green taxes in the world and are also struggling to compete with record Chinese steel imports, which they say have been unfairly subsidized by Beijing.
Most steel companies, including top producer ArcelorMittal, have been hit by plunging prices due to overcapacity in China, the world’s biggest steel market, making Tata’s task of finding a buyer all the more difficult.
Tata Steel is the second-largest steel producer in Europe with a diversified presence across the continent. It has a crude steel production capacity of over 18 million tonnes per annum in Europe, but only 14 mtpa is operational.
Two of its three main European units, Port Talbot and Scunthorpe, are in Britain, with the remaining operations in the Netherlands.
Its share price has halved in the past five years, a period in which it recorded asset impairment of more than $2.88 billion related to the UK business.
The stock opened about 2 percent higher in Mumbai on Wednesday, as investors welcomed the decision to shed a burden on its Indian operation.
For the year ending March 2015, the company took a write-down of a little over a billion dollars in its consolidated numbers. However, the tide seems to be turning for the India operations.
Tata also said it was still in talks with investment firm Greybull Capital over the sale of its British long products unit, which makes steel for use in construction.