Chinese Name: 河钢斯梅代雷沃钢铁厂
Location: Smederevo, Serbia
Type of Project: Industrial
Project Developer(s): HBIS Group Co., Ltd., also known as Hesteel Group
Known Financiers: n/a
Cost: 420 million USD
Project Status: Operational
The Smederevo steel plant (Železara Smederevo in Serbian) is one of Serbia’s oldest and largest industrial facilities. Located on the banks of the Danube about 70 kilometres east of Belgrade, the city of Smederevo was one of Serbia’s medieval capitals, but has been known as an industrial centre since socialist Yugoslavia.
In 2016, the Smederevo steel plant was acquired by Hesteel, a provincial state-owned enterprise from Hebei, and one of the largest steel makers in the world. Following its acquisition, the Smederevo steel plant has become the country’s largest exporter with nearly 400 million USD of exports even in pandemic-hit 2020. The steelworks, which employ around 5,000 people, were first privatised in 2003, when the assets of the state-owned enterprise were sold to US Steel, the second-largest American steelmaker, headquartered in Pittsburgh. US Steel acquired the valuable assets, while the old state-owned enterprise was left with debts and still owes the Serbian state 77 million USD of debt in 2020. Following a collapse in steel prices, US Steel sold the plant back to the government of Serbia in 2012 for 1 (one) USD. The next three years saw the plant managed by a private consultancy firm. Exports and production languished during this controversial stewardship of the plant, which cost the state over 130 million USD in subsidies in some years and ended in an arbitration suit with the management consultancy—which the Serbian government lost.
In November 2015, a framework agreement was signed with Hesteel. The acquisition was structured as an asset acquisition carve-out, meaning the old (debt-laden) corporation was retained by the state, while the profitable assets were transferred to HBIS Group Serbia, a wholly owned subsidiary of Hesteel. Serbian media reported debts of around 360 million USD were retained by the state as a result of the deal. HBIS paid 56 million USD for the steel plant’s assets (valued at 110 million USD by a KPMG audit), with a further 364 million USD in pledged investment that was however not part of the contract.
The inauguration of the acquisition was attended by Xi Jinping and Aleksandar Vučić, Serbia’s then prime minister and president since 2017, highlighting the significant political importance of the deal for both sides. The acquisition marked the first step in Hesteel’s internationalisation, while for Serbia, re-privatising the plant was a long-term objective. The city of Smederevo also signed a twin city agreement with Tangshan in Hebei province.
The acquisition was supported by most of the trade unions present in the plant and Hesteel has, for the most part, lived up to its promises of retaining the workforce as stipulated by the acquisition agreement. The staunchest opposition to the acquisition came from outside Serbia, with the European steel industry going as far as calling the plant a ‘Trojan horse’ for Chinese steel dumping.
With a workforce of 5,000 and a long list of contractors and affiliated businesses, the steel works cast a long shadow over the Smederevo region. Throughout the uncertain period of the plant’s re-nationalisation (2012–16), the government’s priority has been protecting jobs at the plant with a combination of subsidies and tolerance of non-payment of inputs such as electricity from state-owned suppliers.
The takeover of the steel plant by Hesteel was predicated on retaining levels of employment and most workers were rehired by the new Chinese-owned company. As a bonus to the new owners, the government took on old debt and agreed that past state aid would not be payable by the new owners. A year after the takeover, Serbian media broke a story that HBIS managers exerted pressure on the Serbian government to curtail workers’ rights. While neither HBIS nor the government confirmed the story, in October of 2017, the Minister of Labour first announced the formation of a ‘pilot study’, and then only days later announced a nation-wide tightening of controls on sick leave. This would include increased oversight of medical professionals issuing sick leave and was undertaken ‘after talks with Chinese investors, Turkish investors in south Serbia, and unions and employers’ groups’, according to the Minister’s statement.
HBIS increased production to the plant’s maximum capacity, which also resulted in almost immediate environmental consequences. These are most acutely felt by the villagers of nearby Radinac and Vranovo, who are protesting the tons of waste materials that have been deposited by the entrance to the steelworks. HBIS is not obliged to dispose of this waste, because a law passed by the Serbian parliament specifically exempts waste from the steel plant from the national waste management legislation by reclassifying it as ‘building materials’ instead. Apart from waste, air quality has been an issue in the surrounding area. Although red dust frequently blankets the area, no official measurements of air quality exist due to dysfunctional equipment—resulting in the wider Smederevo area being ‘unrated’ by the Serbian Environmental Protection Agency. HBIS has acknowledged the problem and pledged a 140 million USD upgrade of production facilities in 2020.
Increased production also meant the company returned to profitability, posting a 20-million-USD gain in 2017, a mere year into Hesteel’s management. The rapid increase in production and sales did not go unnoticed by the European steel manufacturers’ association, EUROFER, which alleged the plant will serve as a ‘Trojan Horse’ for Chinese steel overproduction. The Smederevo steel works has been at the centre of a legal dispute over price dumping between the EUROFER and the European Commission, supported by HBIS and the Republic of Serbia. In 2016, the Commission launched an anti-dumping investigation following a complaint by EUROFER, but Serbia was exempt from tariffs imposed on other steel exporters such as Brazil and Russia. EUROFER then sued the Commission in 2017, alleging the Chinese takeover will result in a tripling of export to the European Union, and that the Chinese controlling interest makes it more likely Serbia is price-dumping its steel, rather than just following global prices. Although the court dismissed the suit, Serbia has been on thin ice with the Commission. HBIS has moreover expanded production and export volumes not only to the European Union, but to the United States as well. That the parent company of HBIS, Hesteel, owns a 51% stake in the world’s largest steel trader Duferco only adds to fears about Serbia being part of a ‘Trojan Horse’. As of February 2021, Serbia remains exempt from punitive tariffs, but increased production and export volumes, coupled with concerns over the internationalisation of Chinese steel overproduction, will fuel future disputes over Serbia’s steel exports into the European Union.