When it was closed on the order of a judge for causing environmental damage, the ILVA steel plant in Taranto was the biggest in Europe. The parent ILVA group, which owns several other plants in Italy, was the largest in Europe, employing a total of 14,000 workers. Current figures suggest it is no longer the number one steel producer, and production has halved since the court order.
By government decree, the plants have to be sold by the end of June. Any offers must be received by February 20 but nothing concrete has emerged so far, even though the government has allocated €800 million for the environmental rehabilitation of the Taranto plant. Meanwhile, the group’s competitors in Europe have pushed the European Commission to open an inquiry into ILVA and the state subsidies it receives. The most persistent in asking for the Commission’s intervention has been one of ILVA’s major rivals, the German steel group ThyssenKrupp.
According to many commentators, the closure or at least the reduction of the production capacity of the ILVA group could solve the structural overproduction problems of the European steel sector, with enormous advantages for its competitors, which are already threatened by the low cost of Chinese steel.
Steel is a bloody business, especially in Italy. According to the prosecutor who brought the Taranto case to court, the pollution from the plant causes more than 1,600 deaths a year and several thousand illnesses. The plant also holds the horrible record of being the most deadly workplace in Europe, with the most recent victim dying in November.
Nevertheless, the biggest massacre committed by the European steel industry in recent times did not take place in Taranto but in Turin. In 2007, seven workers were killed in a fire that broke out in the ThyssenKrupp plant due to the lack of safety measures. Six managers were convicted and are currently waiting for the final judgement. The Italian courts have already reduced the initial sentences for all six, enraging the relatives of the victims.
This rage exploded again when, incredibly, the Italian state commissioners in charge of running the plant until it is sold appointed one of the convicted managers to be ILVA’s new general director. Marco Pucci has been sentenced to 6 years and 10 months, and will probably go to jail in June when the trial ends. After the protests that followed his appointment, he made the decision to resign from the job.
The future of the ILVA group remains highly uncertain and, after repeated protests that have lasted years, the workers of the Genoa plant, organized by the FIOM union, voted on January 25 to occupy the factory. They accuse the government of trying to sell the group’s plants without any consideration for the preservation of jobs or livelihoods. They stopped the machinery all day, and blocked traffic into and around the plant’s neighbourhood, cutting the city in half. They demand a meeting with the Minister for Economic Development, and that the Minister commit to making sure the new owners of the plant, whoever they turn out to be, respect an agreement signed in 2005 to assure the plant’s future. An agreement, the workers say, that the government is trying to dismiss in order to sell ILVA off to the highest bidder.