The world's largest steelmaker generated shockwaves Monday by announcing it would ditch its plan to buy Ilva, which owns the Taranto plant in southern Italy.
It is Europe's largest integrated steelmaking site, and employs more than 8,000 workers.
The Italian government, which provisionally nationalised Ilva in 2015, has vowed to be “inflexible” in holding ArcelorMittal to its deal.
ArcelorMittal, which began leasing the plant in November with an obligation to buy it, first blamed its retreat on a decision by Rome to refuse it immunity from prosecution over the plant's severe pollution.
The Luxembourg-based steel giant planned to invest 1.2 billion euros ($1.3 billion) in Taranto to curb pollution by 2024, and was given a period of legal immunity to bring the site up to environmental standards.
But Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who faced a crowd of shouting workers at the site on Friday, said the decision was instead driven by profits, with ArcelorMittal demanding that 5,000 jobs be cut.
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While Rome and ArcelorMittal wrangled, Taranto workers expressed worry and fatigue over the latest challenges, which follow years of controversy.
Experts say 7,500 people have died in the surrounding area – where the plant's tall chimneys can be seen for miles – from diseases linked to toxic emissions.
“People are worried, mad, but overall they're tired, resigned because the problems at Ilva are endless and have gone on for decades,” said one worker, who asked to be identified only as Pasquale.
In the midst of a one-day strike, Fabio Cocco told AFP that he and his colleagues at the plant were disillusioned with a mill that was once the pride of the region, employing generations of workers.
“We don't believe in it anymore today. We've suffered too long with the pollution, the sickness, and now Mittal which is leaving us,” he said. Cocco called the risk of mass layoffs “the latest blackmail that we've endured and I've had enough.”
Speaking to journalists during his visit, Conte said he was struck by what he had heard and seen while in Taranto, including workers who wondered whether they were “doing something wrong,” in continuing to work at the mill, given the environmental damage incurred.
“This is a wounded community,” Conte told journalists, caught “between the right to work and the right to health.”
“This is a community that has suffered so much and continues to suffer,” Conte said, cautioning that a solution to the problem would take more than just one person, community, or government.
ArcelorMittal had originally said it planned to invest a total 2.4 billion euros in the plant to revive it, including 1.2 billion to curb pollution. The plant is currently losing almost 2.0 million euros a day, unions say.
“We could see with the naked eye toxic dust floating in the air in the neighbourhood but we never imagined the problem was also invisible, with substances like carcinogens,” said retired worker Cosimo Martinese, 70.
Underscoring persistent economic problems plaguing the area, youth employment in the area around Taranto is 56.2 percent of the workforce, according to the national statistics agency.
In the town itself, overall unemployment is 30 percent, and scores of ex-workers from the struggling plant rely on social services.
Former worker Emmanuele Palmisaro, 45, calculated that around 1,660 people had been laid off by Ilva before the arrival of ArcelorMittal, which cut another 1,400 jobs owing to the sluggish market for steel during its short tenure.
“That makes nearly 3,000 people living off of welfare,” Palmisaro noted.
In 1995, when Ilva was sold to the family-run company Gruppo Riva, suspicions began to surface of links between the plant and abnormal rates of cancers, often infantile, among local residents.
After being placed under state-supervised administration in 2015, Italy held an international bid for the group that was won by ArcelorMittal.
Journalist Fulvio Colucci, author of the book “Invisible: To live and die at Ilva in Taranto,” explains that the plant's core problems are classic supply and demand, with production levels that exceed current demand for steel.
“That's why Mittal wants to reduce its workforce by half” and trim production to make it more competitive, he said.