Merthyr Tydfil: Integration needs to be an ‘everybody’ issue

Merthyr Tydfil was the tenth stop for the National Conversation. It is a town that was built by migrants coming to mine its coal, stoke its furnaces and to work in its factories. Despite this long history of migration, a strong identity and an active labour movement, it is a town where new arrivals and longer settled residents are struggling to accommodate each other, in the context of deprivation and changing patterns of employment. “You have people coming in, and they are getting housing and all this, then you have our own, living on the streets.”

Merthyr Tydfil is the most northerly of the Welsh Valley towns, with a population of just over 60,000 people. From the mid-18th century, its mines and ironworks attracted migrants from Ireland as well as rural Walesa and England. A depression in the late 1820s led to unemployment and wage reductions for an already impoverished workforce. In response, the miners took to the streets in the 1831 Merthyr Rising, on the site of the Old Town Hall where we held our citizens panel. An exhibition in this historic building notes the contribution of Poles and Filipino nurses and reads “Merthyr Tydfil’s new migrant workers are the next chapter in the town’s long history”.

The mid-20th century saw the arrival of Spanish and Portuguese migrant workers. Italians also made their way up the Valleys, and a synagogue serves the largest Jewish community in Wales.

The ironworks and mines of Merthyr have long closed, as have many factories. Hoover made washing machines in the town, at its peak employing 5,000 people, but the factory closed in 2009 when Hoover moved its operation abroad. Today, many better qualified people have left the town. Others work in Cardiff or commute further down the Valleys. The largest employers in the town now include the Welsh Government, the EE call centre and the St Merryn abattoir and meat processing factory.  Yet Merthyr feels like a town that has done badly out the globalisation – similar to places such as Bradford, Hartlepool, Stoke and Rochdale.

About 1,300 people are employed by St Merryn, with 50-60% of them migrant workers, mostly from Poland and Portugal, the majority of whom have been recruited by agencies directly from their home countries.  Work in the factory is hard and the factory has struggled to hire local workers. Inside, live animals are transformed into clean plastic packages ready for the supermarket shelves. Employees face long hours in freezing conditions. Many tasks require consistent physical exertion. One member of the citizens’ panel told us that “the smell [inside the abattoir] was pure torture.”

We were told by those working in the factories that “agency and migrant workers are seen as one and the same”. Many migrants are employed through agencies, creating a two-tier system where pay and work conditions for local people were slightly better than for many migrant workers. In turn, this practice has led to perceptions that migrant workers have undercut local workers.

The local stakeholders that we met felt that without EU workers, the meat factory would not be viable.  The local residents who participated in the citizens’ issues agreed that migrant labour supported this key local industry and without them “the town would suffer”. At the same time, panel members voiced about pressures on public services and migrants’ access to benefits.

Merthyr needs migrant workers and most people who live there recognise this. How can relations be improved between these groups of people?

Making sure that migrant workers have the opportunity to learn English would help – and this is a Welsh Government responsibility. But this alone won’t lead to more integrated communities. There needs to be an open community discussion as to how Welsh Valley communities welcome outsiders. Keir Hardie was Merthyr’s MP from 1900-1915; Nye Bevan and Neil Kinnock were born in next-door Tredegar. Yet a strong and internationalist labour movement has had a limited impact on the focus of communities.  Many of those who we met on our visit felt the close-knit communities of the Valleys could often be suspicious of outsiders – whether they are from Cardiff, England or further afield. “I moved back here from Aberdare” said one panel member, “and I wasn’t made to feel welcome. Close-knit does not mean close.”

Panel members had different views about different types of migrants. They were generally happy to increase levels of high-skilled migration, and most were sympathetic to the needs of refugees. Most of their concerns related to migrants’ access to public goods, mostly the NHS and benefits. We were told “the first thing they do when they come to this country is go to the hospital. I’ve worked in the NHS for 38 years. They don’t have a penny, but I have to queue behind them.”

Some panel members felt seemed to feel that migrants were taking things that were ‘theirs’. This is unsurprising in a town that where one on ten of the working age population is economically inactive because of long-term ill-health. Although exam results have recently improved in Merthyr Tydfil, the town comes near the bottom of the socio-economic league table. Rates of depression, obesity, diabetes and cardio-vascular disease are among the highest in the UK.

As in Bradford, our first visit, persistent poverty can contribute to a resentment of newcomers. In the long-term, Merthyr Tydfil will only become an integrated community if poverty and ill-health are tackled and all members of the community feel they have decent life chances. Above all, our visit to Merthyr Tydfil showed that integration needs to be an ‘everybody’ issue.

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