A reality check: Barriers for the transformation of Slovak and Czech automotive industry to an ecological mobility industry

Type de publication:

Conference Paper

Source:

Gerpisa colloquium, Paris (2021)

Résumé:

 Purpose

Around the world, the automotive industry is currently in a crucial period, which will decide on its further relevance in the coming years and decades. The crisis of car production and sales, which has intensified with the outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020, is also an opportunity to rethink this industry's role socially and ecologically (Galgoczi 2014; Newman 2013). Such reconsideration applies mainly to countries that are extremely dependent on the smooth functioning of the automotive industry.

 

Economically-speaking, the automotive industry is one of the most important sectors in Central and Eastern European countries (CEE). This region is particularly vulnerable to the upcoming changes from pressures to fulfil climate goals and related changes in mobility patterns. CEE countries such as Slovakia and Czechia are threatened by an eventual decrease in employment in the automotive industry and changing value chains in the sector (Drahokoupil et al. 2019). Moreover, with extensive foreign ownership, most of the efforts to reduce CO2 emissions in this sector are not under these countries' control, limiting local actors in their effort to influence eventual declines in production and employment. 

 

For automakers, transforming production from vehicles with internal combustion engines to cars with electric or hydrogen propulsion seems to be a win-win situation for the industry, employees and the climate. However, such a crisis framing needs a reality check. What would the transition to an ecological mobility industry mean in these specific regions that rely on technologies that will no longer exist in conventional cars? Is there any discussion happening between relevant stakeholders at all? 

 

Our study will evaluate the automotive industry structure in Slovakia and Czechia and point out possible implications for the transformation of production into ecologically sustainable and socially useful forms of mobility. It will focus on the various actors in the transition and their obstacles in influencing the strategies and direction of development of such a shift on the example of the two CEE countries well integrated into the global production networks through predominantly production functions and with a dominance of foreign capital (Pavlínek 2018, 2019). This is crucial to identify where the challenges are located, which helps to create a clearer picture of the automotive industry's and its supplying industry tasks, regional mobility strategies, and trade unions and employees' position. Moreover, even though Slovakia and Czechia share a common history, which results in many mutual transition barriers, there are differences worth exploring to better understand the different contexts for socio-ecological transformations. Thus, our study will contribute to the debate on Imperial Automobility and the theorisation of the mobility industry's socio-ecological transformation (Brand 2016; Brand, Wissen, and King 2021). 

 

Design

 

This paper aims to answer the question of what the industry's transformation will look like in Slovakia and Czechia. Shift to an ecological mobility industry might be an opportunity to preserve workplaces in the country, but it requires the active involvement of local actors. To understand their perspectives, eight interviews with relevant stakeholders have been undertaken for Slovakia and eight for Czechia. However, more interviews are planned before the final submission. The following respondents were approached: representatives of company management in firms that are important for local production (cars, buses, trams, trains), trade unions and workers' representatives, representatives of the scientific community, representatives from civil society (NGOs), representatives of economic planning authorities (regional and national) and journalists. 

 

Desktop research concentrated on examining the current situation in the automotive and other mobility industries. In the first part, we introduce the basic figures and numbers of the Slovak and Czech automotive/mobility industry and discuss their position from a global perspective. In the second part, we analyse interviews and discuss barriers for transformation in the respective countries. In the last part, we analyse prospects for transforming the automotive industry into an ecological mobility industry in Slovak and Czech context. 

 

Findings

 

We have identified many different types of barriers that impact converting the dominant car industry into an ecological mobility industry. Some of the more general ones are present in western European countries too, but we will focus on the specific Slovak and Czech economic, political and historical contexts. In general, we can see a very different understanding of what ecological transformation should mean and where the process will lead. Also, there is a visible uneven readiness of different actors in both countries – employers' readiness for change is much higher than employee readiness, and the same applies to the readiness within a value chain. Final producers are much more ready compared to suppliers and subcontractors. The quality of high school and university education and requalification of the workforce is highly discussed, along with broader questions of preparedness of the state/public institutions to moderate a change. Another observation is that trade union involvement in discussions about the industry's transformation is relatively low – mainly due to age structure and their overstretched capacity in terms of staff. Time constraints and lack of preparation of infrastructure are other heavily discussed topics. Last but not least, a key barrier for transformation is a much-needed change in consumer behaviour. However, further analysis will be established. 

 

Practical and theoretical implications

 

Transformation of the automotive industry might be difficult in Slovakia and Czechia for two main reasons. First, the car industry settled in these countries through foreign direct investments and obtained large investment incentives from the state. Foreign ownership of car companies makes it difficult for local actors to seize the initiative. Especially in Slovakia, production capacities are not diversified and are skewed significantly to car production compared to other countries of the Visegrad region. Second, it is unclear what the reorientation should look like and what the direction of the transformation of the car industry should be. Therefore, we aim to contribute to the broader debate about the direction and actors of industrial sectors conversion in the era of climate change – e.g. how can trade unions be retooled to be fit for purpose/today's context (Barca and Leonardi 2018; Brand and Niedermoser 2019; Thomas and Doerflinger 2020)? What should be the role of local public institutions to ensure that transition is just for local inhabitants? Questions like these will be further explored. 

 

Barca, Stefania, and Emanuele Leonardi. 2018. 'Working-Class Ecology and Union Politics: A Conceptual Topology'. Globalizations 15(4):487–503. doi: 10.1080/14747731.2018.1454672.

 

Brand, Ulrich. 2016. 'How to Get Out of the Multiple Crisis? Contours of a Critical Theory of Social-Ecological Transformation'. Environmental Values 25(5):503–25. doi: 10.3197/096327116X14703858759017.

 

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Brand, Ulrich, Markus Wissen, and Zachary Murphy King. 2021. The Imperial Mode of Living: Everyday Life and the Ecological Crisis of Capitalism. Brooklyn: Verso Books.

 

Drahokoupil, Jan, Ștefan Guga, Monika Martišková, Michal Pícl, and Zoltán Pogátsa. 2019. ‘The Future of Employment in the Car Sector: Four Country Perspectives from Central and Eastern Europe’. 104.

 

Galgoczi, Béla. 2014. 'The Changing Role of Trade Unions in the Sustainable Development Agenda'. International Review of Sociology 24(1):59–68. doi: 10.1080/03906701.2014.894346.

 

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Pavlínek, Petr. 2018. 'Global Production Networks, Foreign Direct Investment, and Supplier Linkages in the Integrated Peripheries of the Automotive Industry'. Economic Geography 94(2):141–65. doi: 10.1080/00130095.2017.1393313.

 

Pavlínek, Petr. 2019. 'Restructuring and Internationalisation of the European Automotive Industry'. Journal of Economic Geography. doi: 10.1093/jeg/lby070.

 

Thomas, Adrien, and Nadja Doerflinger. 2020. 'Trade Union Strategies on Climate Change Mitigation: Between Opposition, Hedging and Support'. European Journal of Industrial Relations 26(4):383–99. doi: 10.1177/0959680120951700.

 

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