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Economy

Tension but also harmony over COVID-19 in Europe’s chemical industry

Italian workers threaten to strike, but German, UK companies and workers pull together

by Alex Scott
March 26, 2020

20200325lnp2-falcinelli.jpg
Credit: Filctem CGIL
Union leader Marco Falcinelli (second from left) says pharmaceutical worker safety in Italy's Lombardy area remains unresolved.This photo was taken in January.

Italy, one of the nations worst affected by COVID-19, is now experiencing tension between industrial workers and chemical companies. Workers in the Lombardy region of northern Italy threatened to strike this week because of concerns that they may be exposed unnecessarily to the coronavirus while on the job.

A wide range of chemical production is considered essential in Italy and not subject to quarantine shutdowns. Filctem CGIL, Femca and Uiltec, unions representing industrial workers in Italy, had planned to call a strike to challenge the breadth of the policy.

But it was called off after a last-minute agreement on March 25 between the unions and the Italian government limiting the types of chemicals classified as essential. Under new government rules, production of dyes, pigments, inks, and explosives are now considered nonessential, and workers do not have to continue making them. New protocols have also been agreed to for worker safety in fields where production is ongoing.

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Worker protection in the production of pharmaceuticals remains unresolved, Filctem General Secretary Marco Falcinelli says in a statement. The Italian parliament is due to discuss the issue in the coming days.

The situation in Italy contrasts with that of Europe’s other major chemical-producing nations. “There are no reports whatsoever of any tension. The response to date has been really positive and productive,” the Chemical Industries Association, the UK’s leading chemical industry organization, tells C&EN.

The German chemical industry organization, VCI, says the situation in Germany is also one of harmony. “There is not the slightest sign of strikes in our industry. On the contrary, the social partners in the chemical industry—the employers’ association BAVC and the trade union IG BCE—have a very good relationship. A few days ago they concluded a joint agreement to maintain the liquidity of the companies and to secure jobs,” VCI tells C&EN.

European chemical companies are, however, concerned that restrictions imposed by European Union member states to combat the spread of COVID-19 are hampering the transport of essential chemical goods—including disinfectants, active pharmaceutical ingredients, and water treatment chemicals—around Europe.

Cross-border freight is especially affected, and border inspection of goods needs to be simplified and harmonized, according to Marco Mensink, director general of the European chemical industry association Cefic. In a letter to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen he listed a series of measures that could be introduced to resolve the problem.

One of Mensink’s suggestions is to shift more freight to rail, as it is suited to long-distance, cross-border transportation and could take advantage of a spike in capacity at a time when passenger-train operations are reduced.

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