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Why Vauxhall matters

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Kurt Barling | 13:26 UK time, Monday, 15 February 2010

The world of motor manufacturing in London and the South East is dealt another body blow. This slimming-down sector looks increasingly anorexic.

Vauxhall Motors moved from Vauxhall on the South Bank of the Thames to Luton, Bedfordshire in 1905. It needed space to expand and it became one of the few giants of motor manufacturing outside of the Midlands. General Motors took over the company in 1925. It has been one of the principal employers and generators of wealth in the town ever since.

So when it is announced that around 25% of the Luton workforce is to be shed in its latest round of cuts it's a big deal. Here are the raw figures 369 of the 1411 current workforce will lose their jobs. 154 administration workers will also go nationwide. Overall Vauxhall management say nationally with 11% cuts they have got away lightly.

Vauxhall car plant in LutonSenior management says it has a commitment from General Motors to continue to build the highly successful Vivaro commercial van until 2013. It's a small reprieve. It is not clear whether it might be temporary. The joint venture with Renault is still unpredictable.

Vauxhall remains optimistic that it has added value to offer in a marketplace which is significantly depressed.

It is at pains to stress that a highly skilled workforce will not be easily replaced so it is desperate to keep workers for when the upturn arrives.

There is a sniff of 60-70,000 vehicles being the target this year. Management and unions broadly agree; that speaks volumes.

It wasn't always this unpredictable. Because the motor industry had a reputation for paying good wages, Vauxhall Motors has over the years sucked in workers from all over the UK and even farther afield. Men arrived from Leeds, Bradford and Birmingham in the early 1970s.

Akhbar Dad Khan arrived from Peshawar in Pakistan in the 1960s and took a job at the plant in 1969. At first he'd hoped to further his studies in law, he'd received a Bachelors degree in Law from the University of Peshawar. But money was a priority, as it was amongst his group of male friends, obligations to help family left at home as well as living costs made finding work a priority. The studies went on hold.

Although it now seems incredible Akhbar and his circle of male friends sharing digs in Bury Park knew between £7 and £9 a week could go a long way. £1 went on rent, £2 for food, £1 for socialising, £2 into savings and a £1 put aside to send home to Pakistan to help families.

Trade unionism also attracted men like Akhbar who had a sound education and could read and write English and keep his fellow Pakistani workers well informed. This interest in union politics also spilled over into local politics and if you look at the current crop of Luton Councillors you can see how that political legacy has panned out.

Luton inevitably reaped the rewards of a relatively well paid workforce. It enabled many workers to get a secure and stable financial footing. Buying a house and bringing their families to join them. From the mid 1970s whole areas of Luton have seen Vauxhall money reinvested in small businesses. Some have become sizeable concerns in their own right.

Many of the children of these original Pakistani lads have gone on to university and entered the professions. Luton's Central Mosque started on Westbourne Road in the 1970s was a direct beneficiary of Vauxhall money.

Vauxhall matters in Luton. It is not just an employer, as Akhbar tells it, it has for many people in Luton been a way of life. Even those who left the motor works years ago, Akhbar himself only stayed a few years, there are fond memories of how the company offered good work, good money and a good future.

Experts often refer to the positives of globalisation. Akbhar finding work in Luton from Peshawar is an old-fashioned example. Globalisation has moved on. The process by which good and services are produced and distributed around the globe on the basis of the cheapest and most efficient method of doing so is no longer paying the same dividends for British manufacturing.

Economic rationale dictates that General Motors have to constantly juggle where it is best for it to manufacture its vehicles. Luton senior management argue their site is efficient and competitive.

Nevertheless the local management in Luton are competing for resources in this global environment and like their counterparts in many other parts of British manufacturing are progressively losing out.

Of course people still need work to survive and the part of the process of the globalisation of markets where they no longer count is a little hard to swallow for the van workers of Vauxhall as it is for the chocolate workers of Cadbury's.

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