In the steelworks ukrainian from Zaporizhstal there are reinforced jackets piled up and anti-tank traps at the entrance. Whenever the air-raid sirens go off – and they go off every day – most workers head for one of the 16 shelters scattered around the sprawling complex.
But some continue to work, facing not only the intense heat and flying sparks from the furnaces that forge steel for everything from train carriages to household appliances, but also the threat of shelling, to keep the molten metal moving.
The southwestern city of Zaporizhia, which gives the plant its name, is less than 50 kilometers from the front, and its residential buildings and energy infrastructure are frequent targets of Russian attacks. The impact of the war has seen the plant operate below capacity, with a third of its 10,000 workers idle.
The damage to Ukraine’s metal industry has eroded a lucrative sector and a major employer needed to support a war-scarred economy. Efforts to restore production and get goods back to customers around the world will be crucial in helping the country rebuild.
The metallurgical sector, which was a pillar of the economy before the war, accounted for a third of Ukrainian exports, but has been disrupted by the advance of Russian forces that have seized parts of the country’s industrial heartland, the Donetsk regions and Luhansk.
For the mining and steel company Metinvest, slow pace at Zaporizhstal steel works is only part of the problem. Since Russia seized Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014, the company has lost equipment and facilities in areas under Russian control, seen workers come to the fore and lacked sufficient security to grow..
However, “the biggest damage we have suffered is the damage caused to the Ukrainian economy,” he told the agency. PA the CEO of Metinvest. “When the country is damaged, the company suffers for it, as well as for the direct impact of the projectiles”.
At the Zaporizhstal plant, life continues to revolve around the blast furnaces, even though only three out of four are running. A constant hiss fills the air smudged with the sulfurous odor produced by separating iron from other materials.
The workers’ silver suits reflect blinding light from the red-hot metal in the blast furnaces, where temperatures reach 1,500 degrees Celsius (over 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit).
The process seems busy, but the workers know they are smelting less iron than before the war.
“We are limited. Both in terms of raw material and sales,” said Oleh Ilin, who is responsible for the blast furnaces.
Unlike other industrial complexes in Ukraine, Zaporizhstal has not suffered artillery fire or missile attacks. But like many others, its growth has been hampered by blackouts stemming from Russian missile attacks, infrastructure damage and blockades at Black Sea ports.
The latter is one of the main challenges for Zaporizhstal, where work has only been interrupted twice in its almost 90-year history: during World War II and shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine. Last spring Russian troops were stopped within sight of just a few dozen kilometers from the plant, but the facility has not been able to fully recover.
Prices for the plant’s products have gone up and it’s harder to get them to customers. Now most of the orders move by train instead of by ship, which increases the prices not only of transport, but of production and raw materials.
For example, before the war, a batch of steel plates for appliances such as refrigerators could be completed and shipped in a month or two, explained Roman Slobodianiuk, the plant’s general manager. Now that process could take three months or more.
“Not all customers are willing to take those risks. So we are forced to narrow down the geography of our customers,” she said.
Zaporizhstal previously worked with clients in almost 60 countries, which have now been cut in half. The war affected its ability to fill orders in much of the Middle East and many African countries.
“Before the war, around 90% of metallurgical products were exported by sea, because it was much cheaper”explained Dmytro Goriunov of the Ukrainian Center for Economic Strategy.
Now the plant focuses on closer European countries and the US market, which can be reached from Polish seaports.
Around a third of the metal industry’s capacity has been destroyed and output is around 65% lower, according to data from industry association Ukrmetallurgprom and Oxford Economics.
The KSE Institute of Ukraine estimated war damage to Ukrainian businesses as a whole at $13 billion. Economic output contracted by around a third in 2022 and the Economy Ministry expects growth of just 1% this year.
The government relies on donations from allies such as the European Union and the United States to pay pensions and wages, which helps prevent money printing that could trigger inflation. Ukraine received a boost last week by closing a $15.6 billion loan deal with the International Monetary Fund.
For its part, Metinvest is trying to rebuild after losing two major facilities to Russia, including the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol, where Ukrainian fighters withstood a siege from a maze of tunnels and cellars.
Maksym Notchenko, 41, a former Azovstal worker, watched from afar as Russian attacks on the plant were besieged. “It was like they were cutting pieces out of your body,” he said.
He fled the area and started working in Zaporizhstal last April. Some 20,000 more Metinvest workers did the same and left occupied territories or on the front lines. Before the invasion, the group had about 100,000 workers, which has now been reduced to 85,000.
Ryzhenkov, the company’s director, said restoring supply chains, especially unlocking Black Sea ports, would revive the firm.
“A trait of Ukrainians is that despite everything that happens to us, we continue to work, we invent new ways of working, how to be effective in any situation”he claimed.
The executive added that the only way to guarantee the security and development of Metinvest is to liberate all territories occupied by Russia, including Crimea. That is why the firm dedicates resources to supporting the Ukrainian forces.
His victory, he assured, “can guarantee Ukraine and the businesses that can be developed here.”
(With information from AP)
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