Slovene steel workers say Russian sale has cheated them


Slovenia has one of the lowest rates of foreign direct investment among central and eastern European countries - something the government has been trying to change. But when a Russian firm entered the Slovenian steel market, it fired up a whole furnace full of problems.

On Monday, a group of 300 protesters gathered in Ljubljana. They were representing nearly 6,000 small shareholders in the Slovenian steel group Slovenska Industrija Jekla (SIJ).

The story started shortly after independence, when the Slovenian economy had to absorb the shock of transition to free market and the loss of markets in the former Yugoslavia. At the time, workers agreed to take a cut in their salaries and simultaneously receive shares in the company.

The strategy worked. Unlike the textile industry, which was devestated, the steel industry survived into the new millennium. But then the government sold a 55% stake in SIJ to the Russian company Koks. According to shareholders, the company was sold too cheaply. While they estimated that the value of a share at around 550 euros, Koks offered 190 euros for their shares - and are now offering the same price to the small shareholders. Many people are outraged.

"In 1991, 92, and 93 we agreed that we would not get 100% of our salary. We only got 75%. They told us that when the company is sold, we would get completely compensated in full," said one worker. "The victims were only small shareholders, because the state sold the Slovenian steel industry too cheaply. This protest is only the beginning" said another.

One shareholder believes that the state now owes shareholders more than 100 million euros and says they are ready to take their case all the way to Brussels.

"They stole money from us, but they didn't steal our hearts when we work for this company and the state. We want our rights and we want our young generation to have something from our years of work."

The group also submitted an official letter of protest to Prime Minister Janez Jansa. The story, it seems, is just beginning.