Marelli plant closure forewarns painful electric vehicle transition

31 October 2023 - 09:25
By Reuters
Marelli, owned by US fund KKR, wants to shut the plant in the Emilia Romagna region, which makes internal combustion engine parts for car groups including Stellantis, Volkswagen and BMW.
Image: Reuters Marelli, owned by US fund KKR, wants to shut the plant in the Emilia Romagna region, which makes internal combustion engine parts for car groups including Stellantis, Volkswagen and BMW.

About 230 workers in Italy's “Motor Valley” have begun striking over the planned closure of their car parts factory, an early casualty of the EU's transition towards electric vehicles.

Marelli, owned by US fund KKR, wants to shut the plant in the Emilia Romagna region, which makes internal combustion engine parts for car groups including Stellantis, Volkswagen and BMW. It said the business has become “unsustainable”, amid the EU's ban on the sale of new petrol cars from 2035.

Politicians from across the spectrum have visited the garrison of workers permanently stationed outside the Crevalcore plant, less than 40km from Ferrari's headquarters.

Until last week the strikers had stopped any finished products from leaving the factory, before a limited outflow of parts restarted in recent days.

The dispute is an example of the conflicting challenges governments will face as industries and economies shift towards greener energy to meet tough climate goals and bolster energy security.

Up to 70,000 jobs could be lost in Italy alone due to the push towards green transport, auto lobby ANFIA said.

Marelli has put the plan on hold but confirmed it wants to abandon the plant, leaving workers in a limbo. Around 20 couples risk losing their entire family income.

“Our lives would cease to exist,” said Grazia Vitiello, a 57-year-old whose husband also works at Marelli.

Samira Chouri, 50, has worked at the Crevalcore plant for 18 years.

“We have made sacrifices over years and, as a family, we eventually felt safe. But we realised it was not true,” she told Reuters while preparing for dinner at home with her two girls and her husband, who works in the same plant.

Their stories illustrate how the EV transition is already affecting people's livelihoods, well before buying electric vehicles — still more expensive than petrol ones — becomes a realistic option for most consumers around the world.

‘Building a house from the roof’

Marelli was created in 2019 after Fiat Chrysler , now part of Stellantis, sold its component unit Magneti Marelli to Japan's Calsonic Kansei, owned by KKR, for €5.8bn (R115.9bn).

When formed, Marelli had 43,000 employees with 10,000 in Italy. The Italian workforce has now fallen to 7,300, versus an increase to 50,000 worldwide.

Marelli has announced 167 workers at its Argentan facility in France, which makes parts for combustion engines, will also be affected.

“I'm not upset with EV transition,” said Sergio Manni, a maintenance worker at Crevalcore. “It's the way Marelli is dealing with it: firing and closing, zero ideas.”

Many workers at Crevalcore are in their 50s: too young for retirement, too old to easily find a new job, like Francesco Simeri, who is facing his second company crisis in a decade.

“It's like watching the same horror movie again,” he said.

As the 2024 EU elections approach, the turmoil in Crevalcore, and other similar cases around Europe, might push politicians into thinking people's welfare and a commitment to climate policies are contradictory goals.

Chouri's husband Giovanni Sanfelice said he welcomed green transport, but the EU was not managing the transition well.

“You need to offer workers a solution, otherwise you sentence us to death,” he said. “The EU is building a house starting from the roof.”

Italy, EU's third-biggest economy, has Stellantis as its sole major carmaker, but its parts industry is the second largest in Europe, according to ANFIA, supplying several car makers abroad. However 40% of its companies specialise in combustion technology and over 70% are exposed to it, ANFIA says.

Reliance on that technology and the small size of its companies — two thirds of them employ less than 50 people — could make Italy one of the countries most hit in Europe by transition to electric.

“Small size means little money to invest to convert production,” said Francesco Zirpoli, a management professor at Venice University and scientific director of its Centre for Automotive and Mobility Innovation.

Everyone but the government

Zirpoli said Italian parts makers had the skills to embrace more EV-orientated production but the main threat came from the country's shrinking car industry. Auto output in Italy has fallen from over two million units in the 1990s to below one million now.

“This makes businesses very cautious about investing in Italy,” he said. “Marelli is the perfect example of this”.

Governments are not without means as they navigate the green transition. Some 37% of the EU's €800bn (R15.98-trillion) post-pandemic recovery fund is earmarked for climate friendly investment.

Italy is due to get around €200bn (R4-trillion) in grants and cheap loans through 2026, making it the single-largest beneficiary in absolute terms.

In 2022 Rome set aside €8.7bn (R173.9bn) to support local automotive industry, but no major measures have been deployed so far besides incentives to encourage purchases.

During its first year of power, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni's right-wing government has lobbied to water-down European vehicle emission rules and is pushing back on an array of initiatives aimed at fighting climate change.

It argues Italian businesses cannot afford previously agreed transition goals.

Climate change think-tank ECCO said Italy needed to spend between €7-13bn (R140.31bn to R260.56bn) more per year to meet Europe's decarbonisation goals.

But Italy's reluctance to embrace the green economy has already slowed penetration of fully electric vehicles into the country, potentially worsening the transition challenge. EVs accounted for 3.9% of Italy's new car registration in the first nine months of 2023, compared with 15.2% in Europe as a whole.

“Workers dream of owning an EV car ... the only one who doesn't is the government,” said Vittorio Sarti of the UILM, one of the unions on strike in Crevalcore.