Since 2004, more than 42,000 jobs have disappeared at automakers in western Europe.
And a consensus is taking shape that none of those jobs will come back once the economy picks up.
"The problems are structural and will become more severe," said Paul Nieuwenhuis, assistant director of the Automotive Industry Research Institute at Cardiff business school in Wales.
Automakers must keep improving efficiency to survive and that means producing cars with fewer workers, he added.
Europe's carmakers face fierce competition, flat sales, uncertain exchange rates and many outdated plants that have inefficient production processes. They must continue to shed workers to improve productivity.
Some of the job cuts also reflect a trend among automakers to outsource more of the production process to suppliers.
Ironically, that could mean that some of the job losses among automakers will be made up by new jobs created in Europe's supplier industry.
A shift to suppliers
"The jobs lost at OEM level will be added to employment in the supplier industry," said Siegfried Roth, board member of Germany's large IG Metall metalworkers union.
"We expect that 1.3 million new jobs will be created in the western European supplier industry by 2015."
Since the beginning of 2004, a cascade of automakers have announced massive job cuts and layoff plans - Volkswagen, DaimlerChrysler, Ford, General Motors, MG Rover and others.
The 42,000 jobs cuts announced in the last 22 months are just the latest. Between 1999 and 2003, automakers reduced their combined European workforce by 5.6 percent or 59,175 workers to 1.06 million, said ACEA, the European automakers association.
Data on carmaker employment before 2003 are unavailable. But estimates put net job losses at 9 percent or 101,000 since 1999, when automakers employed a combined 1.12 million workers.
Germany, Europe's No. 1 car producer, is seeing most of the job reductions. That's partly because of the size of the national industry, but it also reflects the country's high wages and relatively inflexible labor contracts.
"It is a German problem," said John Lawson, analyst at Citigroup in London. "Even their makers of profitable premium cars now have to take action for their own health, and even survival."
German labor law severely limits involuntary layoffs, said Jens Schattner, an analyst at Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein in Frankfurt.
'Waited too long'
"Today's massive job cuts come because the industry has waited too long to take action," he said.
By contrast, automakers in France have an advantage because "15 percent of their employment is temporary workers, so reducing workforce is not a union contract issue," Schattner said. For example, when Peugeot reduces output of the 1007 at its Poissy plant, it will lay off 550 temporary workers but reassign 150 permanent workers to other tasks.
The IG Metall union denies its contracts are the problem. "We have the most flexible labor contracts in Europe," said IG Metall's Roth. "We have solutions for production cuts through early retirement and flexible work shifts."
He also defended German wages.
"In the latest contracts, wage levels have not increased. Employee spending power has actually come down," he said.
With new-car sales across western Europe not showing signs of a near-term revival, Lawson expects another round of job cuts in three or four years.
"Long term, I am not positive," he said.
Many jobs at automotive suppliers have been moving east. Suppliers have led the way when it comes to moving labor-intensive production to eastern Europe, where wage costs are a fraction of what they are in the west.
That's easier for suppliers, because " they are not so exposed to political debate and public opinion," said Lawson. "OEMs are now in the spotlight."