Workers protest outside the Arcellor Mittal Saldanha steel plant against the planned closure of the operation which would result in 900 jobs lost

Saldanha (South Africa) (AFP) - Scores of workers in South Africa picketed at steel giant ArcelorMittal’s plant in the town of Saldanha on Thursday demanding a halt in plans to close the operation which would see 900 jobs lost.

ArcelorMittal announced early this month that it would wind down the plant, 175 kilometres (110 miles) north of Cape Town, because it was no longer viable on the export market.

The plant has “incurred substantial losses in the past,” said the company, adding that the “medium-term outlook remain bleak”.

But closing down the operation will mean extensive job losses in the small West Coast town of around 28,000 people, which is heavily dependent on the plant.

Saldanha became operational in 1998 and employs 400 fulltime staff and 500 contract workers.

“When the steel works closes, it means a thousand direct jobs … will be lost,” said Sammy Claassen, spokesman for a community support group, the South African Social and Economic Development Forum, said during the protest.

According to Claassen, if subcontractors are added, around 4,000 people will be affected by the closure of the steel factory.

“There will be absolute poverty, absolute devastation and chaos, crime and unemployment,” said Claassen in the small town that was originally built on the fishing industry.

The town faced similar devastation when big fish factories closed down in the early 1990s, before the steel plant opened in 1998.

“Our town became a ghost town, our people weren’t working,” said 67-year-old community member Pauline Mali.

And “if the steelworks closes we’ll be back to where we come from,” she added.

ArcelorMittal, which supplies more than 70 percent of South Africa’s steel, announced in July that it could slash nearly a quarter of its 8,000-strong workforce throughout South Africa as part of a restructuring project.