Solid Energy cuts hit communities hard

DEIDRE MUSSEN, MARTA STEEMAN, AARON LEAMAN AND JENNA LYNCH
Last updated 05:00 25/09/2012

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No need to panic over job losses say experts Union fears more layoffs after jobs slashed Solid Energy jobs knife to cut even deeper

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Christchurch and the West Coast have both been dealt major job hits after Solid Energy's announcement to slash about 440 positions nationwide.

It was a black Monday on the West Coast in particular after the state-owned company said it would mothball Spring Creek Mine and slash 360 jobs.

Solid Energy also announced proposals to cut more than half the jobs at its corporate, support and development divisions. Staff numbers would plummet from 313 to 150, it said, with most of those affected working at the Christchurch head office in Addington.

The loss of the 163 jobs is double what Solid Energy flagged a month ago when it said it expected to cut 65 jobs at head office and 17 support jobs around the country.

However, city leaders say opportunities in Christchurch's rebuild could soften the blow for the white-collar workers in Christchurch and blue-collar workers on the coast.

Canterbury Employers Chamber of Commerce chief executive Peter Townsend said Christchurch was poised to move into the most extraordinary period of reconstruction and he hoped many skilled people at Solid Energy would find jobs there.

"I really believe the opportunities are just beginning to grow," Townsend said.

Mayor Bob Parker said while it would be stressful for staff losing jobs, he was aware of several organisations looking for skilled people in the services sector .

"I think there will be opportunities here, even if in the short term for some people they are not the ideal opportunities."

He also said the city needed "engineers, builders, plumbers, painters, construction workers and administration staff".

About 31,000 people live on the West Coast, meaning one in 86 people was affected by yesterday's announcement.

Operations at the underground mine were suspended four weeks ago, sparking an outcry from the community, including a protest of more than 1000 people.

But the harsh reality finally hit home when chief executive Don Elder said the mine would be put on "care and maintenance".

Stony-faced workers emerged from a packed meeting in a hall at Dunollie, near Greymouth - some teary, others reeling.

Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union West Coast area organiser Garth Elliott vowed to fight.

"We will go away and look at their proposal." The union would hold a meeting for employees on Thursday to discuss its next move.

Grey District Mayor Tony Kokshoorn was "gutted . . . it is the miners who bear the brunt of this when it's entirely the fault of poor management".

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"If someone had said to me two years ago Pike River Coal mine and Spring Creek won't be here in two years, I would have said they're crazy. It's a kick in the guts for us."

He feared the skilled work force would be lost to Australia but planned to fight.

"Greymouth will not become a ghost town. We will get through it."

Kokshoorn would meet State-Owned Enterprises Minister Tony Ryall today to discuss how the Government could help the community. He would also join a midday protest by 12 Spring Creek miners and union representatives on Parliament's steps.

After the meeting, Elder said he hated giving such awful news and felt for those losing their jobs.

"My job is basically to make sure the company stays alive. When you're losing $8 to $10 million a month, the place is going to bleed dry.

"We have looked at every angle and we couldn't make it work."

STUNNED MINERS COOL ON REBUILD

Soon to be unemployed Spring Creek workers were less than impressed at suggestions they could move to Christchurch to work on its rebuild. After Solid Energy's announcement yesterday, mine deputy Kirk Neilson said workers were numb with shock at the closure, and the idea of leaving their homes for work.

"It's a kick in the guts in the worst way. They've taken our livelihood off us and now they're saying, ‘We'll take you off the Coast, too'. The guys are just shaken."

Neilson, a third-generation mine deputy with 23 years in underground mining, including the past 10 at Spring Creek, hoped to be one of the lucky 20 to work on the mine's care and maintenance, such as flood management and gas monitoring.

If not, he planned to move to Australia for an underground mining job.

Another miner, who declined to be named, had tears in his eyes as he criticised Solid Energy for failing to foresee such financial problems: "They should have made provisions for that."

He started work at Spring Creek only a few weeks before last month's initial announcement, after working for three years at the doomed Pike River coalmine.

"They would have known when they offered me a job that the mine was in trouble."

A third miner, who also declined to be named, criticised Solid Energy chief executive Don Elder's suggestion that workers could get jobs on Christchurch's rebuild. "How do you pay your mortgage and pay rent over there?"

"And what sort of wages are they going to pay over there?" asked another.

After the announcement, Elder said Solid Energy had several employers eager to offer jobs to redundant workers, including in Australian mines and on Christchurch's rebuild.

They would hold recruitment meetings after the consultation period finished.

Yesterday, mayor of Christchurch, Bob Parker, said the rebuild in Christchurch could be a silver lining for the miners.

"Opportunities here in Christchurch can keep families together and enable workers to continue contributing to their communities . . . My message is that you do not have to leave New Zealand for work. This city right now needs engineers, builders, plumbers, painters, construction workers and administration staff.”

HUNTLY EAST TRAINEES EXPECTED TO BEAR BRUNT

A quarter of all jobs will be lost in a proposed shake-up of Solid Energy with more than 120 jobs to go from the Huntly East coal mine.

Solid Energy chairman Mark Ford yesterday revealed the full extent of the proposed job cuts in what he described as "a very sober day for this company".

The state-owned company confirmed it will reduce Huntly mine's staff by 63, from 234 positions to 171, cancel a major ventilation project at the mine and halt all major underground development.

A further 60 roles, mostly contracting positions relating to the mine's ventilation upgrade project, will also be lost.

Which staff will survive the cull will be confirmed next month.

Mr Ford said the cost of producing coal at the Huntly mine was "substantially more" than the current international price for coal.

He said the proposal to reduce development would help ensure the mine's immediate financial viability.

But Huntly East miner and union convener Brian Lynch said the company's decision to axe the mine's ventilation project was short-sighted and could limit the mine's lifespan.

"It's a short-term cost-saving strategy that could force the mine to stop production within two years," he said.

Mr Lynch will travel to Wellington today with workers to lobby the Government to save the mine.

He said the mine's demise would have a flow-on effect to other parts of the economy and could also jeopardise jobs at New Zealand Steel's Glenbrook Mill.

About 80 per cent of the mine's coal currently goes to the mill.

Trainees at the Huntly East Mine were expected to wear the brunt of the redundancies, Mr Lynch said.

"Some of them have only been here six months so they'll be the first to take the hit. These were people who were told they would have jobs for 25 to 30 years. I'd say the majority of those who lose their jobs will go to Australia, perhaps not all to the mining industry, but to others sectors as well."

Waikato District Mayor Allan Sanson said the job cuts would be felt across the district but predicted Huntly residents would pull together.

Huntly stalwart Brian Curle said the job losses would have a detrimental affect on the township but predicted it wouldn't be " all doom and gloom".

"The full ramifications of the job cuts will not be fully understood until we know who has lost their jobs and what the future prospects of those workers are," Mr Curle said.

"I don't think people need to be fearful. Huntly's been through this scenario before and got through. In terms of moral support, I think the community will be there for these miners absolutely."

Meanwhile, Waikato rail workers will meet in Hamilton this morning to hear how the region will fair under KiwiRail's plans to cut 158 infrastructure and engineering jobs.

Organiser Phil Spanswick said workers would meet at the Hamilton network depot at 7.30am to hear KiwiRail's proposal before holding a union meeting to discuss their response.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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