German heavy industry giant ThyssenKrupp and Indian group Tata agreed Wednesday to merge their steel operations in Europe, sending governments and unions scrambling to ward off job cuts.
Once the deal is finalised in 2018, the two groups aim for efficiency savings of between 400 and 600 million euros ($480-720 million) per year -- and are likely to shed 4,000 jobs in production and administration.
The combination would create Europe's second-largest steelmaker after ArcelorMittal, expected to produce around 21 million tonnes of steel per year for sales of 15 billion euros.
The two sides plan a 50-50 joint venture, named "ThyssenKrupp Tata Steel", as a holding company in the Netherlands with joint management that will employ some 48,000 people across 34 sites.
"We will not be putting any measures into effect in the joint venture that we would not have had to adopt on our own," ThyssenKrupp chief executive Heinrich Hiesinger insisted in a statement.
"The steel industry has faced massive challenges in Europe for many years," the German industrial conglomerate, whose products range from lifts to car parts and submarines, explained.
"Steel demand is characterised by a lack of dynamic. There is structural overcapacity in supply and constantly high import pressure," it continued.
This meant that various stages in the value chain were operating well below capacity.
Unless industry players took action, ThyssenKrupp warned, major steel assets would come "under threat of closure in the medium term".
The "declaration of intent" signed between the two groups must still be approved by competition authorities.
- 'Betting everything' -
Worker representatives in Germany, where ThyssenKrupp employs some 27,000 people in its steel division, were quick to voice fears over the planned tie-up.
"The board has bet everything on a single card in the face of all the warnings," works council chief Guenter Back told news agency DPA, adding that "significantly more" job cuts would likely follow those announced Wednesday.
Trade unions at ThyssenKrupp have for months been fearing news of job losses, enlisting help from Berlin to put pressure on the firm.
"No solution can be imagined that runs contrary to the workers," Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel declared Monday after powerful union IG Metall complained of a "total dearth of information" from executives about their plans.
The jobs tussle is set to intensify at the weekend, as ThyssenKrupp must submit the plan to its supervisory board -- where worker representatives hold half of the seats -- for approval.
More upbeat than Germany's Gabriel, British economy minister Greg Clark hailed an "important step" for the island nation's steel industry.
London hopes the deal will secure the future of Tata's 4,000-strong site at Port Talbot in Wales, which sits at the heart of the local economy.
"As always, the devil will be in the detail and we are seeking further assurances on jobs, investment and future production" in the UK, said trade union representative Roy Rickhuss, while adding that workers "recognise the industrial logic of such a partnership".
© 2017 AFP