Soudalp is a steel factory set high up in the Haut Savoie alps near the italian border. Last year Soudalp employed 127 people, now there are only 35. Soudalp has gone bust three times and has changed hands and name as many times. To cope with competition from Eastern Europe and China, production is subcontracted to Romania and people continue to be fired by the score. Convoy trailers, aeroplane tugs, industrial lifts, demolition grips and fire engine chassis are made here from ten centimetre thick steel plates weighing many tons.?
The small Soudalp team appears to be happy. They earn good money compared to those who live in the valley. One gets the feeling that they are part of the old working class, those aristocrats of manual labour. They talk about « dressing » metal like a painter or musicien would talk about their art. They are the cabinet-makers of metal : when you heat a piece of steel to shape it you use the same techniques as a cabinet-maker with wood. At the same time the work is very physical, under valued, dirty, badly paid and it destroys you. Most people on the factory floor hobble because at one time or another a ton of steel has fallen in the wrong place and its rare to have ten fingers.
I photographed everyone sitting on one of the only five chairs available in the factory. The workers were all ill at ease whilst seated. They had never done this before inside the factory. During a working day they sit down in the changing rooms to tie their shoe laces in the morning, otherwise there would be no chairs at all. I wanted to confront the workers with a posture that most of us have all day, but which for them is totally unnatural within their daily working enviroment.
Jean-Pierre Gevaert, boilermaker. Soudalp steel factory, Saint Etienne de Cuines, Maurienne valley, Savoie.