The Argentine auto industry bottomed out in April, the first full month of the quarantine in force in the country since March 20. With all its factories closed since that day, not a single vehicle left the assembly lines, a catastrophe without historical precedent. But little by little, last week they came back to life under strict sanitary protocols, with only one shift per day and production at one-third of the installed capacity.
In Argentina there are 12 automotive plants, some of which have been in the country for almost 100 years. In 1925 Ford built its first T model in Latin America in Buenos Aires. Volkswagen, Peugeot, General Motors, Citroën and, in recent years, Japanese brands such as Toyota, Honda and Nissan joined later. Fiat, Renault and Iveco manufacturers operate in Córdoba. Volkswagen produces in that province the gearboxes that equip its units worldwide, but the cars are manufactured in a plant in General Pacheco, 25 kilometers from Buenos Aires.
The assembly lines were put into motion again during the second half of May, upon presentation of a health protocol to the national government. In General Pacheco, heat chambers placed in the entrances measure the temperature of the 1,300 employees (out of a staff of 3,500) who have returned to work. The workers clean their hands with alcohol and their shoes with bleach. Once inside, they receive a chinstrap. “We have agreed more than 100 protocol measures with the union SMATA. A change of mentality had to be made, because each one is responsible. We had a dining room for 500 employees and that can no longer be used in the same way ”, explains the director of Human Resources of the German firm, Darío Carosella.
Volkswagen imported the protocols of its headquarters to Argentina and adapted them to local needs. The company, for example, must transport its workers, because the population has limited access to the public system to avoid crowds. The plant also had adaptations. A chair was removed on the rest tables by means of guaranteeing social distance, the machines are periodically sanitized and where the operators work face to face, a separating acrylic was placed. The protection measures were transferred to the suppliers.
Last year, the last family car left General Pacheco. Today, all production is concentrated in the Amarok pickup, a strategic decision in line with Argentina’s conversion to a truck and utility vehicle manufacturer. The pandemic found Volkswagen in an expansion plan, preparatory to the manufacture of the Tarek, an SUV that will be sold throughout the region starting in 2021. “We invested US$ 680 million to restructure the entire plant. We are setting up a new water-based painting plant that will be unique in Argentina”, explains Celso Placeres, director of operations.
The quarantine “delayed the projects during the months the factory was stopped, because nothing could be done, but we ratified the investments,” adds Angie Stelzer, director of Corporate Affairs for Volkswagen.
According to data from the manufacturers association Adefa, in 2013, 791,000 vehicles were produced, a milestone from which the decline began: 617,000 in 2014, 543,467 in 2015, 470,000 annually between 2016 and 2018 and only 314,000 in 2019. first four months of 2020 it does not reach 65,000 units. Indec reported that the sector collapsed in March, with only 10 days of quarantine, 34% year-on-year, compared to 17% for the industry in general. In April, finally, disaster struck, with zero production.