Following media speculation yesterday (February 18), Japanese car maker Honda this morning (February 19) confirmed that it would be closing its Swindon plant in 2022, putting 3,500 jobs at risk.
Honda Motor Europe senior vice president Ian Howells said on a BBC Radio interview this morning that the car industry as a whole was facing “unprecedented change” on a “global scale” as demand for diesel cars plummet amid the transition to electric vehicles.
The plant closure will mark the company’s first ever factory shutdown in its 71-year history.
Honda confirmed today that it is consulting with staff, and local MP Justin Tomlinson for North Swindon said that no job losses are expected until 2021.
Last year, the Honda plant in Swindon, which was only in 2017 unveiled as a ‘global production hub’ for the Civic, produced 160,000 cars – or one every 69 seconds, 90 per cent of which are for European export.
Business secretary Greg Clark called the decision to shut the plant “devastating” for both Swindon and the UK.
“This news is a particularly bitter blow to the thousands of skilled and dedicated staff who work at the factory, their families and all of those employed in the supply chain,” he said.
He pledged to convene a taskforce with local MPs, civic and business leaders as well as trade union reps to “ensure that the skills and expertise of the workforce is retained, and these highly valued employees move into new skilled employment”.
Unite general secretary Len McCluksey called the announcement “dreadful news from Honda and for the wider autos sector.
“I’m determined that Unite will get more for our members than another task force. The loyalty they’ve shown deserves much more than Honda making for the exit when technology investment decisions get challenging,” he tweeted.
Unite regional officer Alan Tomala highlighted the impact that the plant closure would have beyond the 3,500 jobs, noting that the “usual formula is one job in the plant equates to four in the supply chain and the local economy” and that the closure “will rip the heart out of this area”.
Unite national officer Des Quinn said that while the union acknowledges the global challenges facing Honda, it doesn’t “accept that this plant, with its highly skilled and dedicated workforce, does not have a viable future.
“We are now entering a period of meaningful consultations with the management to examine in detail the business case put forward by the company,” he noted. “We will leave no stone unturned to keep this plant going and its workforce in employment.”
Quinn said that while the company did not mention Brexit as a reason for its decision to close the Swindon plant, he added that Unite believes “the uncertainty that the Tory government has created by its inept and rigid handling of the Brexit negotiations lurks in the background.
“If the government had delivered a strong and stable Brexit that protected the economy and jobs, we may well have been in a very different position today,” he said.
Others too have highlighted the Brexit link, with the trade body the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders pointing out that investment by car firms almost halved in 2018. Many auto makers have prepared Brexit contingency plans, including Honda itself which has planned to halt production at its Swindon plant for 6 days from March 29, the day the UK is set to leave the EU.
Industry expert and Aston University professor David Bailey told the Financial Times, “Many of us have been warning for several years of the risks to UK automotive over Brexit, that we needed to nail down the uncertainty as soon as possible.”
Responding to the line from Honda saying that their decision wasn’t necessarily related to Brexit, Bailey said, “They’re probably trying to be polite publicly.”
Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner this morning told Sky News that a recent Japan-EU trade agreement “ironically makes it easier to for the EU to import vehicles from Japan than it will from the UK 22 miles away”. He noted that that the automatic disruption to supply chains in the event of a no deal Brexit will have a massive impact on the auto industry.
Turner pledged that Unite would in the coming 21 months fight on behalf of its members at Honda.
“If Honda think that they’re just going to simply withdraw from the UK without a fight to maintain production here then they can dream on,” he said, explaining that Unite would make the case for electric vehicles to be made in the UK.
Quinn agreed, saying that Unite has met with Honda this morning and will be meeting workforce reps “at what is an extremely worrying time for our members and their families.
“The impact of any closure on the Wiltshire economy and more widely throughout the UK supply chain can’t be underestimated – it would be devastating,” he added. “That’s why Unite will be making every effort to avoid that catastrophic outcome.”