Lessons from Bluescope's human crisis


BluescopeBluescope's announcement that it would close its steel making industry with the loss of about 1500 jobs is rightly seen as a crisis. Although the closing was a disaster that entailed massive harm to Australia, it was a crisis in the sense that it invited serious judgment of Australia's directions.

Most comment has been on the economic implications. These are fairly simple. Any Australian plant that makes steel faces higher costs than many of its competitors. These costs are magnified by the high exchange rate of the Australian dollar that makes imports cheaper. The high exchange rate in turn reflects the risk of inflation associated with the mining boom. Under these conditions Bluescope made losses that could not reasonably be sustained.

The economic crisis therefore is posed as the need to restructure the Australian economy so that it supports profitable industries. The options offered are to protect Australian businesses or to increase productivity by lowering costs, usually those associated with employment.

But this crisis cannot be seen simply in terms of economic abstractions. It has to do centrally with human beings. The loss of jobs immediately affects the employees. The ways in which Australia shapes its economy also creates a society in which human beings may flourish or be diminished. Bluescope and similar events invite reflections on the ways we can shape a humane society.

We should think first about the workers and their families. But the closures affect neighbourhoods and cities, too, because the workers' ill fortune will be visited on local shops and businesses and be felt in community organisations. It will be translated into depression whose results will be seen in families and schools. Bluescope and government have a responsibility to mitigate these ills.

The closure also raises larger questions about how the economic arrangements of society support human development and humane relationships. Economic efficiency is not the sole or decisive value. Particularly in times of economic restructuring it is essential to ensure that those who are unemployed receive a living wage that is adequate to support families.

The structuring of a humane society also involves encouraging people to connect with one another in local communities. This can conflict with maximum economic efficiency. The transformation of Australian rural life has led to more economically efficient production. But it has also hollowed out rural communities and the resources available to them.

It is not self-evident that the quality of Australian society has been better served by this process than has France by the protection it offers to its small farmers. The social justification of withdrawing support from small, remote Indigenous communities in the name of economic efficiency is even more questionable.

Similarly it is proper to ask what range of industries in Australia will best serve a humane society. It is not clear that this question should be resolved solely by the market. One does not have to believe in protecting all local industries to ask whether a healthy Australian society will be one in which some manufacturing industry is maintained.

At one level the call for increased productivity is common sense. But the question of productivity needs also to be set within the building of a humane and productive society. To treat human beings and their labour as simply costs that must be lessened to increase productivity diminishes human beings. It leads to infringing on time spent with families, on the right to negotiate collectively for conditions of employment and on the guarantee of justice in case of dismissal.

Identifying increased productivity with removing the rights of workers also ignores the obvious. Most gains in productivity have come through advances in technology. So the human question to ask is how we can build an educational system and a business culture that encourage people to be curious and to innovate. That means seeing workers as subject of the economy, not as objects, as the central assets of companies and not as instruments.

Finally, the link between the mining boom and the pressure experienced by the manufacturing industry also raises questions about the quality of Australian society that we are building. Is encouragement of unrestricted mining in the best interests of Australian society? Should the rent that mining companies pay for Australian resources be substantially increased to shape the future educational and industrial culture of Australia?

The loss of jobs at Bluescope is a crisis. Respect for the human beings whose lives it will affect should lead us to ask wider questions about the society their children will inherit. 



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Bluescope, industrial relations



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Existing comments

Hang on!

"We should think first about the workers and their families" and then "Economic efficiency is not the sole or decisive value."

Have I got news for you Andrew, and a set of steak knives.

It always amuses me when I hear social commentators musing over the morality of our economic system, capitalism and the 'free market' version we have these days.

There is none, simple as that. And 'we all support that' in the sense that there is no Arab style uprising anywhere to bring about change, or, to borrow from Emeritus Professor Warhurst, no Alan JOnes organised rallies to demand an ethical economic system.

In fact, in line with the selfish demands of our economic system, those convoy-of-nonsense people are there only for their own benefit and have no grander plan than that.

Bluescope is a victim of the success of the economic system Andrew Hamilton laments here, and the miners are the cause, along with those who support a floating dollar, which has bipartisan support, so that means each and every politicians, even Doug Cameron, are to blame for the sackings, along with all of us with our eagerness to retire on super funds that deliver a life of carefree world wandering and other such dreamlike fantasies.

I would be less cynical here if I thought Andrew Hamilton were hinting at a revolution in thinking, but he is not.

Instead, he is merely repeating a soft message of disquiet from the Church, which been spruiking this very line of his for hundreds of years, while never once attempting to bring about change.

In fact, more often than not, the Church has sided with the most extreme despots to look after its very immediate and very Earthly interests.

Harry Wilson | 29 August 2011  

This article asks the human questions that our country needs to ask and answer. Building a strong economy is important but not at the expense of the most vulnerable in our communities and those who are being disempowered by the new market trends

denise | 29 August 2011  

The plan of our de-facto PM Bob Brown and his PR manager Julia Gillard is to close our industries. They have failed to a certain extent as the Australian economy remained too resilient, however extra measure like the carbon tax will help them to create more poverty and unemployment.

Beat Odermatt | 29 August 2011  

"Is encouragement of unrestricted mining in the best interests of Australian society? Well, no! Should the rent that mining companies pay for Australian resources be substantially increased to shape the future educational and industrial culture of Australia?" Like obviously.

The new grandstand at Wollongong Showground from which you can actually look across at the downsizing Port Kembla Bluescope steelworks less than two kilometres away used no Bluescope steel in its construction! Like Go figure! They could almost have floated it all across in barges but it's supposedly cheaper to import. And think of all the transport costs and Co2 emissions. This is a really sick society and economic system. But no-one seems to be demanding a new one.

lollygobbleblissbomb | 29 August 2011  

As ever, Andy has focused our attention on the human cost of change. And if you were living in the United States right now, his message would have great resonance where the collapse of its manufacturing means there is little base to grow industries and businesses to meet the challenge of its high unemployment, high debt and low growth realities.

But I think that proper concern needs to be balanced by considering the cost of not changing. The French are a case in point. Their highly subsidised rural industries mean not only a warping of the longterm and unsustainable French (and other European) agricultural sector but the exclusion of product and the inflation of the prices from much poorer parts of the world.

As in the lives of individuals and institutions, so in businesses, the refusal to face and then living in the active denial of death has a mighty cost to it. But with economies, its effects become generations long in its impact. That's not to say we don't do what we can to preserve life. But as in palliative care, some times the most humane thing is a lethal dose of pain relief.

Michael Kelly | 29 August 2011  

"That means seeing workers as subject of the economy, not as objects, as the central assets of companies and not as instruments"

Very well put.

To fund innovation and the businesses we need, we will have to move away from an economy directed by short-term, maximum-profit greed and speculation to one of long term investment in the right areas, probably by a government backed fund.

We could have manufacturing industries here because we invent new techologies and products, and if you have the patents on the intellectual property then you have the monopoly right, and head start on cheats, no matter higher labour costs.

Russell | 29 August 2011  

Yes to all this, and we should think of the situation of all unemployed people. In particular, their levels of income support are woefully inadequate - 30 per cent below the rate of pension, and unemployed people face all the costs of looking for work. Not much concern for justice there.

RPS | 29 August 2011  

This article is all good and well as it raises serious issues. However, why has no one at Eureka Street written an article on the Craig Thomson affair?

Thomson's innocence must be presumed until he is proven guilty in court. However, thousands of dollars of union members' money was spent of prostitutes. Further, shoddy accounting practices mean that hundreds of thousands of dollars of the HSU members' money was not properly accounted for.

Why has there been no article in this ejournal about the shameful and immoral waste of working people's funds. Why no comments on the failure of some sectors of the union movement and Australian Labor party to live up to their roles of representing workers?

John Ryan | 29 August 2011  

Andrew's questions are important but so basic as to be almost trite. The previous commentators - apart from Beat - all hit the subject from pertinent angles too. In my view, Harry is right to point out the historical self-interest of the Church (aka upper hierarchy) in maintaining inequitable status quos which shows up the essential conservatism and unradicality of official Catholicism; RPS is right to remind us of the punitive and oppressively Kafka-esque unemployment relief regime, which shows up our collective selfishness, prejudices and indifference to others' humiliations; and John is right to remind us of the failures of the ALP to represent and promote the ordinary worker in its unceasing surge to the desiccated right-wing of social and economic policy.

Stephen Kellett | 30 August 2011  

thank you for the steady sure voice speaking for a society that upholds human dignity and the value of family life.

janice tranter | 30 August 2011  

The closing of the Bluescope steel factory in Wollongong should not be a surprise to anyone. Manufacturing industry in Australia has been been reducing for 40 odd years and will continue to do so in the global economy. It is only fair that countries such as China and India provide most of the manufacturing jobs because of their larger populations. Countries such as Australia should develop policies for educating people people to be employed both in Australia and around the world in the tertiary sector of the economy in industries such as education, health, tourism and aged care.

Mark Doyle | 01 September 2011  

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