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Last Updated: Wednesday, 10 September 2003, 17:09 GMT 18:09 UK
The steelworkers battle it out
Trade talks have resumed in Hong Kong. Rich and poor nations are trying to strike a global trade deal amid suspicion by developing countries that commitments to open markets by the rich countries will not be fulfilled.

The steel industry has undergone much restructuring. In 2003 it was the centre of a global trade row when the US slapped high tariffs on many developing countries - a move that eventually ruled illegal by the WTO. Just before that ruling we asked steelworkers in the US and Brazil talk about how they saw the issue.

CHARLIE STOCK, blast furnace keeper, Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel, Ohio, USA

Charlie Stock, 52, married with three grown-up children, works for Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel in Steubenville, Ohio in the blast furnace.

The company has just come out of bankruptcy. He has worked for them for 34 years, now at the top labour rate five which is paid a basic $17.10 (12) an hour - though he adds that there are also benefits, overtime and incentives to add in.

Scheduled work hours are 40 per week, but everyone is doing about 56 hours a week at the moment as the company restructures.

When I started in 1969, every parent thought their son would follow them into the steel industry. But from the 1970s, when my son was growing up, things were already in decline.

My dad worked in the industry from 1949 to 1975 when he died. Steel mills in those days were not the high paying jobs they are now. But it was a good life and it was always a stable.

The best thing about this job is the people. The worst thing is the stress of not knowing what's going to happen.

We have taken pay cuts for the almost the past 15 years. People have suffered. People have contributed largely to save this company and save these jobs.

Without this industry, this area will cease to be if you take the steel mills out of this valley. For every [steel] worker there are six other jobs dependent on him.

It's not an old industry any more - in 34 years we have gone from melting pellets to high technology. The days of just heavy labour are gone.

We can compete with anybody in the world with our products, if it really is a level playing field.

But you have to consider the cost of living and human rights in these countries. Our forefathers fought so we wouldn't have to give these things up.

We should at least produce our own steel for our own people.

The government should protect its own people.

With Brazil and China I believe they should have a right to compete, but a large portion of steel should be used in their own countries.

I don't believe tariffs are the way of fixing anything, [but] since the tariffs went in, we have had a complete overhaul.

The steel mill has modernised and we have just given up 650 jobs to be able to begin to compete.

People at Wheeling-Pittsburgh can say we are safe for a year, but we have to look forward. We are safe for the immediate future but we need the tariffs to get further into the future.

I don't think this country should put itself at the feet of its enemies. No matter how hi-tech we get, somebody has still got to produce steel for the planes, for the tanks and for the bullets.

We cannot defend ourselves without steel. I can't think of any company that doesn't use steel somewhere.

URIEL VILLAS BOAS, President of the Steelworkers Union of Baixada Santista, Brazil

Last March, soon after we heard about the American safeguard measure, we decided that we should all get involved; government, companies and unions.

So we arranged with the American union leaders to visit the American steel mills.

Going there, we understood perfectly well why they had taken such measures [imposing tariffs on imports]. The Brazilian steel mills are much more competitive than the American ones, so they are trying to protect their jobs while using outdated production methods.

President Bush promised them in the campaign that he was going to protect the steel industry. When he was elected, there was a barbecue for more than 1,000 steel workers.

Soon, he signed the new legislation, establishing a quota tariff on Brazilian exports of slabs and a tariff of 30% on exports of plates, hot-rolled flat products, cold-rolled flat products and corrosion resistant steel flat products.

The American companies say that the Brazilian government gives advantages and subsidies to the Brazilian steel mills. But the allegation is false.

They were once state-owned, but had all been privatised by 1993.

Since then, the private owners have invested heavily to improve the production system.

The Brazilian steel plants are very modern - and that is not good for us workers, as the production is mainly mechanized and they need fewer workers.

We also have the advantage of having a much cheaper iron ore - we only have to import coal.

All stages of the production are geographically close in Brazil: the mines, the mills and the ports to export the steel products.

Also, the workforce is much cheaper, earning on average $400 (250) per month.

At the end of this month, we will receive a delegation of American steel workers. They are coming to visit the plants and make contact with the industry association.

They are worried because they are losing their battle with the World Trade Organisation.

But the final decision might come only when the three-year period of the safeguard is over. In other words, we may win but we won't get anything from it.

I think it's a paradox that the Americans impose tariffs, not only on steel but also on other Brazilian products. At the same time, they heavily subsidise the agriculture products that are exported to us.

If the market were free, other sectors of American industry, like the car makers, would have cheaper materials and their cars would be more competitive.

It's a contradiction inside capitalism. Our fight is for capitalism to be respected.


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