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Workers disillusioned as ArcelorMittal mulls dropping Taranto deal

Workers at the Taranto steelmill faced an uncertain future on Friday as global giant ArcelorMittal decides if it will walk away from Europe's biggest integrated plant.

Workers disillusioned as ArcelorMittal mulls dropping Taranto deal
ArcelorMittal last week said it may pull out of a deal to buy the Taranto steel mill. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP
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.
 
“Toxic dust”
 
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.

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HEALTH

Florence wants to ban smoking in parks and at bus stops

Local authorities in Florence are preparing to restrict smoking outdoors as well as inside.

Florence wants to ban smoking in parks and at bus stops
Florence is set to follow Milan in banning smoking outdoors in public. Photo: Marco Bertorello/AFP

The city council plans to introduce a ban on smoking “in public parks, gardens and in other places that are usually crowded and where youngsters gather”, local councillor for the environment Cecilia Del Re told La Repubblica.

The measure will be included in Florence's upcoming plan to reduce air pollution, Del Re told the newspaper, which is due to be approved by the end of February. Allowing time to define and communicate the new rules, the ban is expected to come into force around June 2021.

That will make Florence the second big city in Italy after Milan to widely restrict smoking outdoors in the city centre. Milan's ban, approved late last year and effective from this month, forbids lighting up in places such as public transport stops, parks, childrens' play areas, sports stadiums and cemeteries.

Other Italian cities including Verona and Bolzano already outlaw smoking in public parks – though not on the streets – while Venice has proposed making parts of its historic centre no-smoking zones (without passing any legislation to date).

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Health and environmental advocates have long pushed for restrictions on smoking outdoors, notably on Italy's beaches, saying the habit contributes to air pollution and litter.

The campaign has taken on new urgency amid the Covid-19 pandemic, which added a new health risk to the act of smoking at a time when Italy requires people to wear face masks in public at all times, including outside. Studies have also suggested a possible link between poor air quality and severe illness from Covid-19.

Consumer watchdog Codacons has urged Italian authorities to follow Spain's example and forbid smoking in public outdoor places throughout the country. The Spanish government in August banned smoking on the street, as recommended by the World Health Organisation, as coronavirus cases surged.

Italy has had a ban on smoking indoors since 2005, but rules are less strict than in some other European countries; smoking is allowed on bar and restaurant terraces and next to the doors of public buildings, for example.

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