Tens of thousands of GM workers across Europe downed tools on Tuesday in protest against GM's proposal to axe 12 000 jobs by the end on 2006.

Tens of thousands of GM workers across Europe downed tools on Tuesday in protest against GM's proposal to axe 12 000 jobs by the end on 2006.

GM has insisted that it will need to reduce its European staff complement of 63 000 by about 20 per cent, or 12 000, to cut costs. The European operations have not recorded profits since 1999 and the multinational lost nearly R2,6 billion in Europe in the first three-quarters of 2004. It is hoping to save about R4 billion with the planned changes.

Employee representatives and management opened talks about the manufacturer's plans at Opel's headquarters in Russelsheim on Monday, as workers stayed away from the Opel plant in Bochum. Defying union and government requests to return to work, the protesters demanded assurance that there would be no compulsory retrenchments as a condition for the resumption of the early shift.

An Opel spokesman declined to give any details, but warned that there would not be any rapid progress in the talks.

"This is going to go into the weeks ahead. We are not expecting any kind of result soon," a GM spokesman said.

However, GM is determined to press ahead with the cost-saving exercise despite the threat of more strike action.

GM announced the possible 12 000 job cuts in Europe - mainly in Germany - last week. The company said it had yet to determine which factories would be worst hit by the plans. The ageing Bochum plant has been identified as having a "competitive issue".

GM Europe president Carl-Peter Forster and Opel chief Hans Demant said they saw "a realistic chance" of making the Bochum plant competitive and wanted to "reach quickly the most socially acceptable solutions possible." However, they did warn that continued strikes would aggravate the existing problems.

It was announced that the Opel operations in the UK had also been affected, with 340 workers expected to be released at the Ellesmere Port factory, which produces the Astra.

According to last week's announcement, the Bochum and Russelsheim plants will lose 4 000 workers each, while 500 will be made redundant at Saab's Trollhattan plant in Sweden. But while no plant closures have been included in the announcement, two of the biggest factories, Russelsheim and Trollhattan, remain under threat. Their survival depends on which plant will produce the next Opel Vectra and Saab 9-3.