Cars follow dresses in manufacturing decline

With today’s announcement that Toyota will stop manufacturing cars by 2017 and SPC’s future looking bleak, large-scale manufacturing in Australia appears all but over.

Australia’s Coalition government has decided they won’t commit themselves to a string of handouts unlike the Labor government.

No government wants to have massive job losses on their hands but when do you stop handing out money?

But what’s more expensive? Supporting those workers who will lose their jobs, or bribing companies to stay open?

It reminds me of a story I did in 2012 for The Weekly about dressmakers in Melbourne and the decline in domestic textile manufacturing. Once thriving, the industry suffered as import quotas were dropped and places like India and China became economically attractive for manufactures.

“Flinders Lane, where I started working, was full of manufacturers, button and trim suppliers, fabric suppliers. As a junior, I’d get sent down the road and told, ‘Go and get some buttons for this order’, so I’d be there looking at racks and racks and racks of buttons. It was great, I loved it.

“But after they dropped the import quotas in the ’80s you could import a whole garment on what you would spend on fabric.”

One dressmaker believed the industry could have been saved if companies had adopted better machinery and had turned their attention to high-end manufacturing like Italy did.

“They invested a lot of money in skills and equipment. Their mills and machinery are top-of-the-range and they produce the luxury product that they’re known for. We could have done the same with all the expertise we had in Australia.”

This can be said for industries now in trouble. Why didn’t car companies respond quicker to local demand? Why didn’t they start making smaller and greener cars sooner?

If manufacturing does indeed cease to be one of Australia’s leading employers, then there has to be a plan in place to assist those workers to transition to other forms of employment.

When I think about those in my year at school, many of the boys ended up as fitter and turners, mechanics, working in mines and vineyards. What jobs will there be now for them? Will tech studies and TAFE courses – so heavily promoted as a way to keep boys at school – now be a thing of the past?

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