Steel sector meltdown continues

The South African steel industry closes ranks to consolidate and develop innovative solutions as the steel crisis deepens

At a special workshop for its members held in Johannesburg in January, the Southern African Institute of Steel Construction (SAISC) outlined its consolidated approach and progress in dealing with the steel crisis. Working closely with the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) in recent months, the SAISC together with the DTI and other government and industry bodies, including SARS’ Customs and Excise division, aims to arrest the rampant deterioration of the crisis in the steel sector caused primarily by so-called dumping of cheap steel imports from China on the South African market – which has resulted in plummeting prices, dwindling demand, closure of some steel mills and widespread retrenchments.

Background
In 2015 the crisis evolved into a full on meltdown as steel mills were forced to close and steel and metal companies began retrenching workers. Some steel fabricators are now in their third round of retrenchments.

In August 2015, ENCA.com reported that Scaw Metals Group chairman Ufikile Khumalo referred to the crisis as “unprecedented.” “The industry is seeing a crisis, I have never seen such a tough period in my history in the industry…media is talking about a job bloodbath, we are talking about a company bloodbath, especially in smaller companies. These companies are highly indebted and are battling to survive.”

In September 2015 ArcelorMittal SA announced the temporary closure of two of its steel mills, and is reviewing the future of its largest steel mill.

January 2016
Addressing some 150 SAISC members from around the country, Paolo Trinchero, CEO of the Southern African Institute of Steel Construction (SAISC), advised that significant progress had been made through ongoing discussions with the DTI to alleviate the crisis. “Working closely with the DTI, SAISC is taking a holistic approach on tariffs – which is a complex task indeed requiring a fine balance. And beware as Chinese exporters continue to market heavily,” warned Trinchero.
An important part of its collaboration with the DTI, SAISC is playing a key role in enforcement by training Customs officials to seek out and recognise inferior steel product imports which are subject to revised tariffs.

A statement released by the DTI in February reads:
“Government is working closely with all the stakeholders in the steel sector to secure agreement on a comprehensive package of measures to support South Africa’s primary steel production capabilities.

Following due process involving the International Trade Administration Council (ITAC), the Minister of Trade and Industry, Dr Rob Davies, has assented to tariff increases for three steel products. Investigations into another eight product lines have been finalised and await government approval.

It is of course extremely important that tariff protection measures for primary steel producers do not result in higher steel prices being ‘passed on’ to downstream, steel intensive manufacturing sectors. These sectors are labour intensive and any measures, which might erode the competitiveness of secondary steel intensive manufacturers, must be avoided. It is for this reason that government is very carefully weighing up the basket of measures under consideration and is consulting widely with all stakeholders, the downstream users included.

The Ministers of Trade and Industry, Dr Rob Davies and of Economic Development, Mr Ebrahim Patel and senior officials of both departments, have held extensive talks both with executives of ArcelorMittal South Africa (AMSA) as well as with senior executives of the company at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos.

In addition to a meeting held in October 2015 with all primary steel producers, downstream manufacturers, industry associations and labour, a further meeting will be convened by government in the near future to finalise the package of measures proposed by government. These measures are designed to secure the primary steel producers, safeguard downstream users and protect employment across the entire steel value chain.

Government is confident that agreement will be reached in this regard.

Once final agreement is reached an announcement setting out the package of measures to be adopted, in addition to those already implemented, will be made.”

Certainty in construction, mining and energy is essential
“Although there is too much supply and too little demand, there is still much that we can do in parallel with Government’s interventions,” continued Trinchero. “Stimulation of the local market is key.”

Referring to the National Development Programme (NDP), Trinchero emphasised that certainty in the construction, mining and energy sectors is absolutely essential. “Release smaller bites of the NDP,” he implored Government, “and localise supply. The entire supply chain from design, to manufacturing, supply and installation must be localised to support and stimulate not only our ailing steel industry, but the South African economy as a whole.”
Most importantly, Trinchero pointed out, is that municipalities in particular are now buying locally.

“Exports too are critical, and exchange rates are favourable,” he said, noting that some 200 000 tons of steel product was exported in 2014, and a somewhat lower yet still very significant figure in 2015. “As an industry we need to focus on accelerating our export drive with a view to doubling this figure!”

SAISC has also established “Team SA,” partnering with financial institutions to market South Africa heavily throughout Africa.

“A number of large steel heavy construction projects are in the offing for 2016,” said Trinchero in closing. “Both here at home as well as in the SADC, the DRC and Ethiopia. Innovation is the answer: as an industry we need to sharpen pencils, work smart, work hard, and be competitive”

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