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Automakers resume production in China after coronavirus freeze

APphoto_China Tesla
Cars move along the assembly line at Tesla’s gigafactory in Shanghai in January.
(Ding Ting / Xinhua )

Automakers, under pressure to reverse a sales slump in their biggest market, are reopening factories in China that were closed to help contain the coronavirus outbreak.

Local officials have orders from the ruling Communist Party to get businesses functioning again while still enforcing anti-disease curbs that shut down much of the world’s second-largest economy.

“Local governments are putting their full weight behind helping businesses open,” Ker Gibbs, the president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai, said in a statement.

Toyota Motor Co. said two factories reopened Monday with one of the usual two daily shifts working. Volkswagen, Ford Motor Co., Mercedes Benz and Chinese brand Geely resumed some operations last week. General Motors Co. said a “staggered start” across its factories began Saturday. Nissan Motor Co. plans to restart this week.

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Automakers say they are checking employees for the virus’ telltale fever, barring visitors and telling employees to stay home if they have been in Wuhan, the city at the center of the outbreak, or other areas that have imposed travel restrictions.

The outbreak prompted the government to extend the Lunar New Year holiday to keep factories and offices closed and workers at home.

The government has told employees who can work from home to stay there, but China’s vast manufacturing industries that supply the world with smartphones, toys and other goods need workers in factories.

Obstacles include a requirement for workers who return from other areas — as millions are doing after the holiday — to make sure they are virus-free by staying at home for its 14-day incubation period.

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“Most factories have a severe shortage of workers, even after they are allowed to open,” Gibbs said. “This is going to have a severe impact on global supply chains that is only beginning to show up.”

Automakers are under pressure to reverse a two-year sales decline in a Chinese market they hope will propel global revenue.

Sales of SUVs, minivans and sedans hit an annual peak of 24.7 million in 2017 and have declined since then. Last year’s sales tumbled 9.6% to 21.4 million.

The virus “adds to the challenges that the sector is already facing,” Fitch Ratings said in a report.

Groupe Renault said one of its factories in the southern city of Guangzhou, near Hong Kong, reopened Monday, but the French automaker gave no indication of the status of another factory in Wuhan.

Sales of vehicles are likely to be depressed through April, Fitch said. It said production might fall by the high single digits in the first half of 2020 compared with a year earlier.

GM, Toyota and others said the pace of production depended on how fast they could restart the flow of components from thousands of Chinese suppliers that also shut down.

That disruption could have global repercussions: UBS estimates China supplies 8% of auto parts exports worldwide.


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