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Friday 22nd, Sep 2017 (Published on Thursday 27th, Jul 2017)

The transformation of work in Wales

In Wales in recent decades there has been a dramatic transformation of patterns of work and employment. Dr Hugh Mackay delves deeper.

Airbus coming in to land at Hawarden Airport, next to the Airbus factory

Creative commons image Icon Taking-off? An Airbus A380 lands at Hawarden airport, next to the Airbus factory

A consequence of globalisation, new technologies and other factors, the changes in Wales have had profound social and cultural consequences – some of which resemble changes in other areas where there has been a rapid decline of heavy industry, whilst others are distinct to Wales.

Outside Wales, it’s commonly assumed that work in Wales is mainly in the heavy industries of coal and steel, which has been a dominant representation of Wales for decades. But, following the 1984-85 miners’ strike, coal all but closed down: from a workforce that peaked at 271,000 in 1920, there are now no deep pits in Wales, and coal now employs a mere 0.2 per cent of the workforce. Steel closed at Shotton in 1980 and Ebbw Vale in 2002; and the steelworks that remain are as productive as in the past, but with a much reduced workforce.

Since as long ago as the 1930s there have been policies of economic diversification, from the Trefforest Estate and Hoover at Merthyr Tydfil to the more recent era of WDA-supported inward investment. At the high-value end of the spectrum are the assembly of the European Airbus wings at Broughton, and car engines at Bridgend, but the breadth of manufacturing encompasses textiles, electronics, automotive components and consumer goods. Much of this is ‘branch plant assembly’, low-skill rather than high added value work, such as research and development. As elsewhere in the UK, however, employment in manufacturing is in decline, with growth taking place in the service sector. Whilst much of this work, in health, call centres, administration and offices is white collar, it has many of the characteristics of blue collar work; and for many it is part-time and even casual.

In the countryside, too, there has been a massive decline in traditional agricultural employment. Milk quotas, BSE then foot and mouth all took their toll on a farming system that is characterised by relatively small units that neither achieve the necessary economies of scale nor benefit greatly from the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy. With food producers squeezed by the powerful supermarkets, policies today include the encouragement of diversification and stewardship of the countryside. The problems faced by rural workers are especially acute in the context of high costs of travel to work and to access services. 

In trying to strengthen the economy, the Welsh Government faces an uphill task. In Wales, productivity is low – in terms of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the value of the goods and services that are produced per head. It is because the GDP in much of Wales is so low – under 75 per cent of the EU average – that much of it qualifies for EDF Convergence (formerly Objective 1) funding.

Another problem is that a significant proportion of the population is economically inactive – higher than in any other nation of the UK or region of England except the North East. Wages are low, and the gap with the UK average income has not been improving in recent years. 

Cardiff is a rather different story. Although other areas of Wales (including Monmouthshire and the Vale of Glamorgan) are relatively affluent, there has been a huge growth of employment in Cardiff – in government, the media and associated organisations – especially since the arrival of devolution in 1999. In Cardiff today unemployment is 4.8 per cent, compared with 14 per cent in Merthyr Tydfil and a Welsh average of 9 per cent. These figures, of course, mask much higher levels of unemployment among younger members of the workforce.

These transformations, of course, have profound social consequences. Often today, two adults in a family have to work, and the feminisation of the workforce has affected traditional gender roles. The reduction in skilled jobs in heavy industries and manufacturing is connected with declining levels of trade union membership as well as lower wages. The concentration of work on the A55 and M4 corridors gives these areas very different characteristics from west Wales or the south Wales Valleys. And the decline of agricultural employment has had profound consequences for the sustainability of rural communities, which have been so significant for the Welsh language and the rural way of life which has featured so prominently in Welsh culture. 

All of these changes in the organisation of work and the structure of the economy can be identified in the everyday life of households, with transforming relations of gender and generation shaped in part by the world of work. They relate closely to the distribution of income and wealth and patterns of inequality. They shape the health of the nation, and are the main driver of policies on education. Studying the world of work—in Wales and elsewhere – can lead us to a better understanding of numerous key areas of social life.

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  • Originally published: Wednesday, 4th April 2012

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