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Raffique Shah


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Don't take Mittal's mill even for free

By Raffique Shah
March 16, 2016

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.

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!

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?

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.

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.

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.

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