Workers at a Ford assembly plant gather during an emergency meeting with the plant management in Genk.

Ford to close Belgium factory

Ford will close a factory employing 4,300 workers in the Belgian town of Genk in 2014, trade union leaders at the site said on Wednesday.

Consumers are grappling with tight budgets, unemployment and government austerity, creating economic gloom that has sparked a slump in the region's auto market; too much production capacity has weighed on the profitability of car makers in Europe.

"The management has decided to close the car assembly and the press activities in Genk at the end of the current production cycle in 2014," Luc Prenen, leader of the ACV union, told workers gathered outside the plant.

"This will result in the closing of the Genk production site and will cause the loss of 4,300 jobs," he added, using megaphone to make himself heard to the crowd.

The plant makes the Mondeo mid-size car and Galaxy and S-MAX mini-vans, but all three models are nearing the end of their current life cycles. Production of the new Mondeo, S-MAX and Galaxy models will be moved to Valencia in Spain, Prenen said.

Several hundred Ford workers had gathered outside the gates of the plant, in Genk, in eastern Belgium, as local Ford managers met staff representatives on Wednesday.

"It's incredible," said one of the workers, Peter Aerts. "Just last month I got an invitation to celebrate 25 years working here."

Another employee at the plant, Rudi Schepens, said: "It's difficult because most people here are over 40. They say that people will find it hard because the government has to make cuts. That's nothing compared to what we are facing.

"First they gave us hope, now it's all gone."

Union leader Prenen said European-level managers from Ford did not attend the meeting, at which local managers simply read out a statement.

"After the announcement there were some rough scenes. There was some pushing and shoving but we managed to calm it down," he said. "It was aimed at the management but they left quickly. It was also among each other as people were very angry and frustrated."

Ford Europe managers, including Chief Executive Stephen Odell, are scheduled to meet Belgian Prime Minister Elio di Rupo and Employment Minister Monica De Coninck at 1pm (1100 GMT), a government spokesman said.

The executives are also due to meet members of the government of the Dutch-speaking region of Flanders, where the plant is located, at noon (1000 GMT).

In September, European new car registrations shrank at the fastest pace in the past 12 months, leaving nearly all major brands nursing double-digit declines.

French car maker PSA Peugeot Citroen, which in July announced plans to cut 8,000 more jobs and close a plant near Paris, said on Wednesday third-quarter sales fell 3.9 per cent.

Ford's Genk plant, which opened in 1964, has operated on a four-day week for much of 2012, unions say, with only 15 more production days planned this year, none of them in December.

Ford's announcement last month that it would produce the new Mondeo in Genk from next year briefly raised hopes for the plant's future, although sources later warned that the tentative start date was not a reprieve and Ford was prepared to assemble the model elsewhere.

Workers began blocking the gates when reports of the possible closure emerged on Monday.

Ford, which will present third-quarter results on October 30, doubled its European loss forecast for 2012 to $1bn in July and said action was needed to "decrease our production to match real demand".

Ford employs 3,485 workers at its assembly plant in Valencia, where it produces the C-MAX Grand and Compact models, data on its website shows. It also has an engine plant in Valencia employing 470.

News of Genk's closure follows General Motors' move to close its Antwerp site in Belgium. Its European unit Opel is also in talks with unions on a restructuring plan leading to the eventual closure of its factory at Bochum in Germany.

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