Unions concerned at sale of UGB steelworks by Hoogovens

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In March 1999, two years after its takeover by the Dutch-owned Hoogovens group, the Usines Gustave-Boël (UGB) steelworks at La Louvière in central Belgium is up for sale again. Trade unions are concerned about the conditions proposed by the potential rescuer, Duferco.

In 1997, the Dutch-owned industrial group, Hoogovens, took over the the Usines Gustave-Boël (UGB) steelworks at La Louvière in central Belgium. However, the regional authorities of Wallonia have recently refused to finance Hoogovens' proposed rescue plan for UGB, considering it uncertain to succeed, expensive and likely to mean several hundred more job losses. Subsequently, in March 1999 Hoogovens and the regional authorities agreed on an amicable pull-out for the company from UGB, avoiding a liquidation which would otherwise have forced the parties to comply with a BEF 1.7 billion redundancy scheme agreed by the Dutch group in 1997 to accompany the anticipated loss of 1,100 jobs at UGB.

For the public authorities, the only credible rescuer is the Italian/Swiss group Duferco which, with the region's help, relaunched the Forges de Clabecq after its collapse in 1996 (BE9707102N). Duferco has announced that, it it rescues UGB, it is planning economies of scale between UGB and Forges de Clabecq, which are 30 kilometres apart and traditionally closely linked. Duferco would not have to take over the debts remaining from the 1997 redundancy scheme, and would continue to receive supplies from the Hoogovens plant in Ijmuiden, in the Netherlands. Duferco's plan would be to keep no more than 500 to 800 of the present 1,358 jobs, possibly with transfers to Clabecq.

Trade union delegates at UGB oppose Duferco position as favoured rescuer, as it has declared that if the takeover goes through, it will harmonise the working conditions at UGB with those at Clabecq. According to the UGB union delegations of the Belgian General Federation of Labour (Fédération Générale du Travail de Belgique/Algemeen Belgisch Vakverbond, FGTB/ABVV) and the Confederation of Christian Trade Unions (Confédération des Syndicats Chrétiens/Algemeen Christelijk Vakverbond, CSC/ACV), Clabecq's conditions are "reminiscent of the pre-war period". Workers allegedly lack adequate protective clothing and are exposed to danger, while fatal accidents have taken place in recent months.

Furthermore, the takeover of Forges de Clabecq by Duferco in 1997 was made conditional on the workers' consent to a company agreement on a "new enterprise culture", involving five years without strikes, pay cuts of between 20% and 30%, multi-skilling and mobility between departments. This is the situation that UGB workers want to avoid. Duferco gave them three weeks in which to come round before the takeover agreement, and was meanwhile trying to mobilise the entire central region, which would be economically and socially devastated by the demise of its last industrial employer, UGB.

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