How the sugar workers of Silvertown fell out with Europe

How the sugar workers of Silvertown fell out with Europe

“The future of a giant factory which has stood along the London Docks for more than 130 years is at risk of closure thanks to EU policy,” reported the Newham Recorder in April 2013. The bone of contention was the Common Agricultural Policy, whose restrictions on the import of sugar cane, which is grown outside Europe, was obliging the Tate and Lyle refining plant in Silvertown, a mainstay of employment in Newham, to reduce output and lay off workers.

The Recorder quoted company vice president Gerald Mason. “We are not asking for preferential treatment,” he said. “We are just asking to be able to trade under fair terms.” He added of his workforce: “Some of them are from families who have worked here for generations.”

There has also been a history of discord between Tate and Lyle and the regulations of what was once called the Common Market. The TV news footage below includes interviews with Tate and Lyle workers from around 40 years earlier, worried about the very same things Mason was talking about, and saying very similar things about their links with their employer.

The clip is imprecisely dated, but seems likely to have been shot in 1973, the year the UK joined the Common Market, or perhaps 1974. Jacques Chirac, derided in a demonstration banner, was French agriculture minister from 1972 until 1974, the same year in which he began his first spell as Prime Minister.

I’m not bringing this to your attention to make any kind of point about the EU, though it does highlight an issue. Rather, my reason is simply to bring to your eyes and ears those faces and voices of an older London that has, in some respects, endured to the present day.

That may be fanciful. Yet there are still Silvertown residents who speak of Tate and Lyle keeping people in work for generations. And although the plant has been through many changes, when you look out at it through the windows of a passing Docklands Light Railway train, there is a small temptation to imagine that time there has stood still.

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Categories: Culture

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