The Naked Engineer: Stripping industry issues bare

Posted on 1 Dec 2011 by The Manufacturer

The naked engineer is our anonymous columnist from industry. Pulling no punches, NE provides informed critique of manufacturing policy and practice on a monthly basis.

There is just now a great deal of Government rhetoric purporting to support British manufacturing. The facts though contradict the spin from Whitehall.

The statistics we are given (although of great concern), are not telling us the full story, and disguise the reality of just how badly British manufacturing has suffered at the hands of government in the past twenty years.

The Purchasing Managers Index (PMI) is released monthly, but tells only a part of our story. There was a time when the Balance Of Payments was a major topic for discussion on a monthly basis in the UK. Why do we no longer see it published, and discussed?

The answer is simply because the bare facts are too horrific. In the year to August 2011 our deficit was £35,564,000,000. We imported over £1,000 per person employed in the UK more than we exported.

In times when a manufacturing company might find it difficult to gain planning permission to expand for fear of a newt having taking residence, or not meeting ‘sustainability’ criteria, can someone explain to me how sustainable such a deficit is?

Let us least be honest with ourselves – accept the facts for what they are and deal with them accordingly.  The facts are that we import such huge quantities of goods because they are cheap to make. They are cheap to make because the playing field is anything but level.

Our European counterparts do not apply the European directives as we do, and our competitors in Asia live in a different world.

We all want to embrace a code of conduct for safe working practices, a clean environment, and fair treatment of employees. But we cannot though achieve these alone, and should not be shouldering all the responsibilities.

Energy costs are rising at an alarming rate due in part to energy taxes. Again manufacturing will bear the brunt of this, at a cost (the Daily Telegraph claims) of 95,000 manufacturing jobs and 60,000 service jobs.

Compare this with China. The total UK carbon emissions in 2008 were 522,856 tonnes, amounting to 1.73% of the world’s output. This seems to be cause for serious concern yet in the same year, China’s emissions were 7,031,916 – 23.33% tonnes which it would appear is not alarming at all.

UK workers should be supplied with a safe and healthy work place. No one would question that. Why though, do we accept that we can import goods from countries where this is not the case?

At Foxconn, a major China-based device manufacturer for Apple, among others, between 300,000 and 400,000 employees eat, sleep and work on the premises. So far this year, there have been sixteen suicides and a further twenty employees were prevented from jumping to their deaths.

Admittedly the company is now boarding up windows and fitting nets to prevent further suicides and will be increasing its basic wage by up to 50% (from £90 per month). But next time you have to do a risk assessment on using paperclips, or get sued for a paper cut, feel proud that you are not fitting nets to catch employees driven to the end of their tether by their work environment.

However, such dire working conditions as those Foxconn is seeking to improve are not a one off. At the Pearl River Delta, near Hong Kong, factory workers lose or break about 40,000 fingers per year and many of these workers are children.

Multinational companies support this kind of scenario year on year. Our government does nothing. It’s too busy introducing yet another round of ludicrous H&S or PC laws that have no common sense foundations, no additions to quality of life, and seem designed to make us less efficient and less competitive.

Less I give the impression of being unfair on China. Has anyone been to Italy, France or Portugal recently and seen a building site? Same rules as the UK – I think not.