Sharon Yates looks at the light grey clay that lines the edges of her fingernails and smiles.
She’s just finished her shift at Dunoon Fine Bone China, where she starts work at 6 a.m. and puts handles on cups. “I can do roughly 4,000 or 5,000 a day, she says, beaming as she sips a mug of coffee at a local café. “Yes, I’m proud that I stick handles on cups. I really love the job that I do because I come from the potteries. I’ve been born and bred a potter … . It’s in my blood."
Despite Ms. Yates’s pride, she knows she’s part of a dying breed in Stoke-on-Trent, a working-class city south of Manchester with about 250,000 residents. Stoke’s 300-year-old ceramic industry, made famous by brands such as Wedgwood, Royal Doulton, Waterford and Royal Albert, has been hit hard by changing consumer tastes, offshore competition and a history of bad management. A generation ago the industry employed around 58,000 people in the area and hundreds of factories lined the city’s streets. Today employment in the potteries stands at around 7,000 and Stoke’s skyline is dotted with abandoned kilns and empty buildings. And now just as the industry has finally stabilized, and is even showing signs of modest growth, there’s fear that Brexit could land a fatal blow.
Right now the industry is protected by European Union tariffs of up to 50 per cent on nearly all imports of ceramic goods into the bloc. But if the United Kingdom leaves the EU next month without a deal to remain in a customs union, which allows for free movement of goods, those tariffs will no longer apply. That could pose a double whammy to British ceramic makers: Not only will they be vulnerable to a flood of cheap imports from Asia, they’ll also face EU tariffs on exports to France and Germany, which are big buyers of English tableware. Britain could impose its own tariffs after Brexit, but the government hasn’t announced what measures it will take and International Trade Minister Liam Fox has said he wants to keep tariffs low to protect consumers and promote free trade.
The ceramics industry isn’t the only sector grappling with a post-Brexit drop in tariffs. Farmers, for example, could see tariffs on imports of sheep meat, beef and chicken fall from as high as 65 per cent. But there’s a sentimental attachment to the potteries and the industry has emerged as the focal point in the debate over how the government will protect jobs after Brexit, while also ensuring low prices for consumers. The fate of the industry has also become something of a reality check for Stoke, which voted 70 per cent to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum.
Ms. Yates, 49, is typical of many people in Stoke. She’s deeply rooted in the potteries and fearful about Brexit. She’s been working at Dunoon for 27 years and is the union representative for ceramic workers across the city, including the 94 who work with her.
She took over the cup-handling job from her mother who worked in the industry for 22 years mainly as a “sponger,” someone who smooths the clay on newly made cups. Her father made plates and saucers. Her grandmother and great grandmother put gold linings around tea cups.
“When I was growing up, the industry was booming, it was absolutely booming,” she recalled adding her family lived across the street from the factory where her parents worked. “You used to see hundreds and hundreds people walking past you every morning to the potteries.”
But now all of that is largely gone. She rhymed off a long list of factories that have closed and named a multitude of nearby towns that have been left desolate. None of her three children work in the potteries and she doubts any of her 11 grandchildren will either. “It’s that small now and it’s at a breaking point.” she said, adding that Brexit could finish it off. Ms. Yates, who voted to remain in the EU, said she was shocked when she heard Mr. Fox muse about slashing tariffs after Brexit. “By the time it takes to adapt to it, it might be too late,” she said. “These cheap imports come in and smaller factories wouldn’t be able to survive at all.”
Not eveyone in Stoke shares those concerns. Long-time community activist Peter Yates (no relation to Ms. Yates) voted to leave the EU and he hasn’t changed his mind one bit. He says there’s been too much scare mongering and he’s convinced that Stoke, and the United Kingdom, have enough resilience to overcome anything. “We’ve gone through two world wars,” he said. “We’ve managed our own.”
Indeed, Stoke has shown remarkable adaptability over the years. For centuries the city’s economy drew heavily on the rich clay and coal deposits in the surrounding countryside. That laid the foundation for the potteries, mining and steel industries. By the 1990s, the coal mines had closed, the steel mills shut down and the potteries were in decline. But Stoke managed to reinvent itself, turning to new ventures such as logistics and gambling. The city is now a major warehousing hub for companies such as Amazon, grocery chain Sainsbury’s and construction equipment maker JCB. It’s also the headquarters of locally owned Bet365, one of the world’s largest online gambling companies. All of that has kept unemployment below the national average and job creation booming.
But the city still faces plenty of challenges; wages are far below the national average and pockets of Stoke are among the most impoverished areas in the country.
Paul Farmer has lived and worked in Stoke all his life and he’s found the whole debate surrounding Brexit frustrating. Mr. Farmer is co-owner and managing director of Wade Ceramics, a 200-year old business that specializes in making ceramic bottles for the whisky industry. Wade has been on an upswing lately, with sales climbing 25 per cent last year to around £13-million ($22.3-million). The company has invested £15-million in its plant and boosted employment from 146 to 217 in the past year. It’s also branching out into new product lines such as fragrance bottles, candle holders and even piggy banks, which have suddenly become popular again. “This industry has been to the depths and is coming back,” Mr. Farmer said sitting at a table in his office just steps away from the humming factory floor.
All around the city companies such as Steelite, Portmeirion, Wedgwood and Dudson have expanded their operations to take advantage of the growing demand for English-made ceramic products in places such as South Korea and the United States. But the uncertainty over Brexit has left almost everyone in the industry reeling.
Mr. Farmer blames politicians for turning the Brexit talks with the EU into such a mess that the country runs the risk of leaving on March 29 without an agreement. “My concern is they won’t make their bloody minds up. It’s as simple as that,” he said.
The company’s new-found success has made the chaotic Brexit process even more troubling, he added. Mr. Farmer is looking for a new clay supplier and he’s worried about sourcing material from Portugal, which could face tariffs after Brexit. His big customers could also see a slowdown in their sales to Europe after Brexit, leaving Wade vulnerable to losing business. And finding workers could get harder too, if it becomes more difficult for people from Eastern Europe to work in Britain. Around 20 per cent of Wade’s staff comes from Poland and other Eastern bloc countries, filling jobs that locals just won’t take.
Mr. Farmer, who voted to remain in the EU, doesn’t support tariffs or protectionism. But he’s concerned that if the United Kingdom slashes its tariffs, other countries won’t follow suit and Wade will continue to face high tariffs on exports to the EU and other countries. “If we are going to go tariff-free in terms of imports, we have to go tariff-free on exports. That’s the challenge,” he said.
Back at the café, Ms. Yates waves her hands to indicate the number of ceramics factories that used to stand near the coffee shop. She remembers when pottery classes were part of the school curriculum and she yearns for the days when real craftsmanship mattered. She handles one cup every four seconds at Dunoon, carefully attaching the handle by hand. “It’s all precision work. All done by the eye,” she said, adding that it takes two days to make one cup. If the floodgates open after Brexit, the country will be swamped with cheap, machine-made knockoffs.
“The pots is becoming a bit of a lost soul,” she said. “My main thing is for the pottery industry to survive, because at the end of the day it’s one of the most historic industries left in the world. And it’s here.”