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Shah: Don’t take Mittal’s mill even for free; how T&T fuelled Lakshmi Mittal

Trinidadians are hell, I tell you.

Take their almost instantaneous sympathy with the 600-odd steel workers who found themselves jobless last week when ArcelorMittal shut down its plant in this country.

Photo: Steel workers at a blast furnace at ArcelorMittal USA. (Courtesy Glassdoor)
Photo: Steel workers at a blast furnace at ArcelorMittal USA.
(Courtesy Glassdoor)

Sure, that means at least 5,000 family members facing very uncertain times if not utter devastation. Those who have mortgages or rentals could lose the roofs over their heads. Vehicles may be repossessed. Children’s education will be at risk, in particular those who attend university. And ultimately, putting food on the table might be a challenge.

So yes, these workers, like others who have gone on the breadline because of companies scaling down their operations during harsh economic times, deserve whatever help Government and the public can offer them.

But, has anyone spared a thought for the owner of the business, Lakshmi Mittal? After all, he is the majority shareholder in the biggest iron and steal… ‘er, sorry, steel, conglomerate in the world.

This poor-rich man has seen his fortunes fall over the past ten years so much so that he might well be deemed a pauper in billionaires’ row!

Photo: Steel tycoon and Indian billionaire Lakshmi Mittal. (Courtesy Rediff)
Photo: Steel tycoon and Indian billionaire Lakshmi Mittal.
(Courtesy Rediff)

From a high of fifth in 2006 on Forbes magazine annual “rich list” rankings with a net worth of US$23.5 billion, Mittal has plummeted to 135th position with a paltry US$8.4 billion last January.

Indeed, the depressed global steel market that has put him in this bind has seen ArcelorMittal’s assets decline from its 2014 level of US$100 billion to US$78 billion.

For a corporation that operates in 60 countries and boasts of annual sales of close to US$100 billion, suffering a net loss of US$7.9 billion for the financial year 2015 must have hurt.

The magnate, who spent US$78 million on his daughter’s wedding a few years ago, and who lives in a US$128 million mansion in London, no doubt feels threatened by cheap Chinese and Turkish steel that’s flooding the world market.

You think it’s easy being filthy rich?

Photo: A snapshot from the wedding of Lakshmi Mittal's daughter. (Copyright Times of India)
Photo: A snapshot from the wedding of Lakshmi Mittal’s niece.
(Copyright Times of India)

I know some readers will growl: but Mittal was a nobody when the then NAR government sold him the local steel mill back in 1989, reportedly for a song.

That is true: bear in mind, though, that the Eric Williams government had ploughed more than a billion dollars into constructing what was known in 1981 as ISCOTT. The new mill registered losses from start up to when the NAR took the reins of government, so really, they had no choice.

At the time, Mittal was a “nillionaire”, owning one rusty steel mill in Indonesia. I don’t know who alerted him to the T&T Government’s plan to part with ISCOTT, but reliable sources at the time told me Lakshmi crooned out a boss-rendition of the Indian classic song “Suhane Raat” for PM Ray Robinson and finance minister Selby Wilson, and he walked away with the keys to the plant.

To his credit, having negotiated basement rates and prices for natural gas, electricity, water, land rental and port fees, Mittal turned around the plant’s fortunes. It was renamed Caribbean Ispat and was soon spinning money.

By 1995, from the profits he made at Point Lisas, Mittal had bought steel mills in Mexico, Canada, Kazakhstan and Germany. Thereafter, the renamed Mittal Steel grew like Jack’s magical beanstalk, and the rest is history.

Photo: Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar (left) presents a framed photograph to her former Cabinet colleague and late Prime Minister ANR Robinson. (Courtesy Gov.tt)
Photo: Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar (left) presents a framed photograph to her former Cabinet colleague and late Prime Minister ANR Robinson.
(Courtesy Gov.tt)

People will say he should never have bitten the hand that put big money in his pockets, that he should have a conscience and carry the local plant through the current depressed times which will not last forever.

But linking conscience with conglomerates and capitalism is oxymoronic, and we would be morons to believe that tycoons like Mittal have hearts. Among the super-rich, there are a few who treat their employees as human beings and give generously to the poor: Bill Gates and Warren Buffet come to mind.

The Mittals of this world, members of the “one per cent club” that controls 50 per cent of global household wealth—estimated at US$250 trillion in 2015 by Credit Suisse—don’t give a damn about the rest of us, or for the countries that provide the enabling environments for them to get super-rich.

By moaning about his losses at Point Lisas and possible rise in operating costs, he expects us to shed tears for him, not for the traumatised workers or the country that helped make him who he is today.

I hope as a nation we can muster the fortitude to tell Mittal where to shove his plant, which will have added little to our economy other than the workers’ salaries, but subtracted much by way of pollution, dog-cheap gas, electricity, etc.

Photo: Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley has criticised ArcelorMIttal for its decision to shut down its Point Lisas Plant.
Photo: Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley has criticised ArcelorMIttal for its decision to shut down its Point Lisas Plant.

Don’t buy that plant. Don’t even take it for free. And set some stringent conditions for him or anyone else who seeks to operate it henceforth.

By redeployment and Jah’s grace, the workers will survive.

We must have some pride in ourselves as a nation.

About Raffique Shah

Raffique Shah
Raffique Shah is a columnist for over three decades, founder of the T&T International Marathon, co-founder of the ULF with Basdeo Panday and George Weekes, a former sugar cane farmers union leader and an ex-Siparia MP. He trained at the UK’s Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and was arrested, court-martialled, sentenced and eventually freed on appeal after leading 300 troops in a mutiny at Teteron Barracks during the Black Power revolution of 1970.

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58 comments

  1. Perhaps it’s time for TnT to manage its own global billion dollar industry and look after its own.

  2. I disagree and the example I quoted was also an energy sector company.

  3. Because this is a company where the retrenchment are in the hundreds as a conservative estimate. And the amount of money they pump into the economy in use of natural gas and electricity is well into the millions. Or more.
    Based on what I’ve heard so far, I do think it is on a national scale.

  4. In this same time frame, there is at least one other incident of retrenchment of close to 100 people that isn’t being discussed at all.

  5. Not really Lasana. It doesn’t work that way generally in the industry. And the union is not what I would consider an unbiased source.

    In regards to the 9 – 1 ratio, I do not believe that is a reasonable estimate. Particularly as it relates to my experiences working on the estate both during plant construction and commercial operations.

    I have sympathy for those who lost their jobs. But the discussions seem to want to infer national significance to the event in terms of scale.

  6. The trick is how to get rid of the debt and run it so you don’t make a loss.
    And we will probably have to fight ArcelorMittal for every dollar. But I say don’t roll over.

    • We will have to fight for every dollar.

      For example the 1.3 billion that our local plant reportedly owes.

      We dont know if that is in USD or TTD but its a big number.

      If that debt is denominated in USD then a plant takeover is out of the question.

      Multinationals have a funny way of playing fast and loose with figures.

      One subsidiary can charge another entity in a different country for product and services at an exorbitant rate to reduce host’s tax liabilities.

      Its called transfer pricing. Its a shell game.

      Caution is warranted when dealing with MNCs. Caveat demptor.

      Lets exercise some skepticism and diligence. Let us hold on to our wallet with both hands.

  7. If CLICO was too big to fail, then so is this steel plant. It is not only a matter of getting workers jobs elsewhere.
    First of all, I don’t know where you can find jobs for them in this market.
    Second, if the union is accurate and the steel plant brings in a billion dollars a year in revenue for the country through its use of natural gas and electricity, we can cripple our own economy by just walking away from the plant.

    • One of the plants has been down for almost a year because of the irregular natural gas supply. I posted their Financial Statements a few days ago, maybe the Unions can also get someone to interpret those. We can also cripple the economy by leaders talking out of turn too and using language that are not “investor friendly”.

    • CLICO was different. But only in its risk to the economy of not just Trinidad but of the English speaking Caribbean.

      Bankers and investment houses create money using leverage i.e. borrowed money. That generates huge returns.

      But leverage cuts both ways. Its great when times are good. But when times are bad deleveraging exacerbates a downturn.

      That was the risk with CLICO and HCU.

      Steel makers are different. They make steel. They do not create money.

  8. And then Savitri, the European companies seek out markets that they can exploit. And the European consumers purchase goods made by companies who exploit their workforce in other corners of the globe.
    Screw the poor. As often and hard as possible.
    That’s the game.

  9. The ratio was from Raffique’s story which seemed to be nine to one Kendall. So I used that as a template.
    The 2,500 figure is from union and includes downstream and upstream suppliers and contractors i believe.
    You are talking about a billion dollar company in operation for about three decades. It makes sense that some companies would have been formed for the sole purpose of catering to AncelorMittal.

  10. But with all that has been said, no one remembers when ISCOTT was a millstone around the necks of the citizens, losing $80M a year.

  11. Keith, the capitalism and exploitation of workers have been going on in the world since trade barriers broke down. Some countries have dealt with in a far more logical manner than we have. The EU, with all its faults, are introducing laws to protect the consumer. When companies want to play the fool in France all Unions will come out and strike and lobby in solidarity. In T&T, the Union leaders look after themselves because they can be made a Minister depending on how they play the game

  12. That ratio doesn’t make sense to me. I am skeptical about the 2,500 figure of people on the breadline.

  13. The unions are not yet in recession mode. As I understand it, the Ministry of Labour has a list of jobs available where the retrenched people would be able to do and utilise their skills. Our companies have been complaining about a lack of skilled and unskilled workers. I don’t know how many people will get jobs under this initiative and perhaps companies who need workers should have advertisements in the dailies so that people can see what is available. This will be a start rather than sitting on the breadline waiting for the government to set up a fund to help people who are out of jobs.

  14. This is about the third or fourth person of any note I see saying don’t take it on. But the Unions who are advocating, albeit quietly, should do so and show the citizens what they are made of.

  15. …Raffique Shah to the rescue again. No main stream columnist would frame his analysis in such bald and bold terms Capitalism breeds exploitation of workers and nations. Globalized capitalism ramps up that exploitation as necessary. This is the post-colonial, neo-colonial, New World Order, globalizatiion predicament 5.0. Round and round and round we go..

  16. ..This is the post-colonial, neo-colonial, New World Order, globalization, predicament 5.0..

  17. We have to negotiate a better deal for ourselves. How can one man have such power over our economy? I say we can’t afford to be bullied into deals because they would supposedly go elsewhere.
    Let some walk if it gets us better deals in the long run.

  18. Problem with stringent measures is that we also want them to come and set up businesses here. It’s a fine line.

    • True. Need to find balance, as with everything. What I’m saying is it can’t be happy go lucky.

    • If the investors see profit here, they won’t mind certain measures.

    • Kirwin Weston…I have to add an lol to that…is there such a thing as obscene profits (or salaries for that matter?). Don’t companies have a responsibility to be run in a sustainable manner? Look at our manufacturers who sell soft drinks and water-plastic bottles piling up in our dumps and waterways for gov’t to deal with and no penalties or measures put in place by manufacturers for recycling etc-they just make pure profit! While the gov’t will have to deal with the backlash to the environment-and health if the sugar content of soft drinks is not reduced!

  19. He did it because he could have. Technically he did what any typical businessman would do. As I said, we need more stringent measures in place with respect to foreign investors.

  20. Are they going to sue OAS in Brazil as part of the bankruptcy proceedings taking place? They might be able to get something back.

  21. Excellent idea. And that will take some intervention and negotiating.
    Of course, according to Darryl Smith’s logic, since you cannot dictate to the banks would it can do–for fear or interfering–then you are better off doing nothing at all.
    But let me not be distracted by our Sport Minister. :-/

  22. ..Add to that the 807 retrenched OAS workers and their families. Troubled times on the immediate horizon. The first measure the government should undertake is to warn off the banks from foreclosing on mortgages and other debt..

  23. I understand the total figure of people on the breadline, when you factor in spinoff companies and contractors, are nearer to 2,500.
    If I use Raffique’s ratio of sacked worker to affected family members, you are looking at around 21,000 affected persons.
    Can Trinidad and Tobago really afford 21,000 persons left to fend for themselves in this economy?