Unlikely alliance could save steel industry

ArcelorMittal (above) is one of the steel producers which met with government and union officials. (David Harrison, MG)

ArcelorMittal (above) is one of the steel producers which met with government and union officials. (David Harrison, MG)

In a rare moment of agreement, business, labour and government have agreed to protect the local steel industry, in a move aimed at avoiding what business has called the imminent collapse of the steel industry.

An emergency task team was established to avoid what some have said will cost 190 000 jobs and the closure of most steel producers in the country in six months, if drastic action is not taken.

“The meeting was significant in relation to the fact that we had approached government with one voice, irrespective of our differences,” the parties said in a joint statement, released on Monday.

Looming retrenchments at several steelmakers across the country prompted the formation of a task team. Numsa head of collective bargaining, Steve Nhlapo, previously told the Mail & Guardian that the union had approached other unions, UASA, Mewusa and Solidarity, as well as employers.

A potential collapse of the industry could see 190 000 workers lose their jobs.

At a media briefing on Monday, a task team representatives said there was no “quick fix” to the crisis and added that “impending company bloodbath” would affect large and small steel producers.

Present at the briefing were Numsa, Mewusa, Solidarity, Uasa, steelmakers Scaw Metals, Evras Highveld and ArcelorMittal, as well as the Steel and Engineering Industries Federation of South Africa (Seifsa).

The task team met two weeks ago and a list of ten demands was sent to government. Chief among these was an urgent meeting with six government departments.
On Friday, government agreed to meet.

At that meeting, Numsa secretary general Irvin Jim led the labour delegation. The business delegation was led by ArcelorMittal chief executive Paul O’Flaherty. The chief executives of Evraz, Scaw Metals, Cape Gate and Macsteel.

Government was represented by trade and industry minister Rob Davies, economic development minister Ebrahim Patel and various senior officials from the departments of transport, public enterprises, national treasury and Transnet.

The task team’s demands included the banning of steel scrap exports, monitoring of imports and the establishment of a steel crisis committee.

Government has committed to setting up a joint committee comprising of the departments of trade and industry and economic development.

O’Flaherty said on Monday that the agreements that had been reached at the meeting were not a “lifeline”, but that they could help to avert the crisis in the short-to-medium term.

Among the agreements reached were that the first application for tariffs at 10% would be signed off next week. ArcelorMittal agreed to join government in investigating anti-dumping measures.

The department of public enterprises agreed to look at ways to use local steelmakers. The task team had complained that state-owned enterprises imported steel, while the local industry was ignored.

A task team consisting of business, labour and government will investigate the possibility of a layoff training scheme, which could provide some protection to workers facing retrenchments.

The task team will meet again in three weeks’ time to assess progress made.

But the labour delegation warned that it would continue its focus on avoiding job losses, adding that “no worker deserves to be retrenched”.

Sarah Evans

Sarah Evans

Sarah Evans interned at the Diamond Fields Advertiser in Kimberley for three years before completing an internship at the Mail & Guardian Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane). She went on to work as a Mail & Guardian news reporter with areas of interest including crime, law, governance and the nexus between business and politics.  Read more from Sarah Evans

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