* Calls for direct talks between Swiss govt, banks
* Swiss plant seen as vulnerable to permanent closure
* Petition says banks should protect jobs
* Calls for new tax on Asian oil product imports
By Emma Farge
GENEVA, Jan 13 (Reuters) - A Swiss union has launched an online petition calling on its economy minister to match the French government’s pledge and intervene directly in talks with bank lenders to protect refiner Petroplus from bankruptcy.
The Swiss-based refiner has reached a temporary agreement with 13 banking lenders who froze about $1 billion in December but Petroplus investors and workers are still concerned about the future of the firm and its five European plants in the absence of a long-term deal.
“As the other European economy ministers have done, the Federal Council should intervene personally with the banking partners of Petroplus who have frozen credit lines and find a solution to avoid the bankruptcy of Petroplus,” said Switzerland’s UNIA in a statement on Friday, calling for Economy Minister Johann Schneider-Ammann to intervene.
France’s government has offered the Swiss refiner help in its talk with lenders and has met directly with the head of Petroplus Jean-Paul Vettier to discuss the group’s responsibilities in France.
The UNIA’s petition also calls for banks to take responsibility for protecting jobs at the Cressier plant and for a new tax on Asian oil product imports on the grounds that these can be produced more cheaply due to less stringent environmental regulations.
Petroplus’ Swiss, French and Belgium plants are seen as particularly vulnerable to permanent closure as the refiner did not touch on the fate of these units in a statement earlier this week.
It said in the same statement it was seeking a crude supply deal to keep its UK and German plants running.
The firm is grappling with overcapacity and a weak economic climate that has cut margins and forced closures at two of its refineries already in recent years.
Switzerland’s 68,000 barrel per day Cressier plant, one of its two refineries, was Petroplus’ least successful plant in the third quarter and a closure would make the land-locked country more dependent on foreign imports.
A UNIA spokeswoman said that the Cressier refinery will shut early next week as a temporary measure and will bring forward planned maintenance work. UNIA said it expects to collect signatures over the next two weeks.
Petroplus said this week it had shut down France’s Petit Couronne and Belgium’s Antwerp refineries safely.
France’s trade union called for the nationalisation of Petroplus refineries and in Belgium trade unions are blocking millions of dollars worth of oil products from leaving Petroplus’s Antwerp refinery to ensure that provision is made for payments to staff. (Reporting by Emma Farge; editing by Jason Neely)