Smelter staff vulnerable, says union boss

COLLETTE DEVLIN
Last updated 05:00 11/08/2012

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Staff at the Tiwai Point aluminium smelter do not have redundancy provisions in their employment agreements, which leaves them vulnerable, a top union official says.

Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union Southland organiser Trevor Hobbs said the smelter's natural attrition policy, under which about 100 jobs were expected to go over the next five years, as well as plans to sell the smelter, had the union concerned for staff.

Management revealed this week the smelter was in a difficult financial situation and was reviewing all its costs.

Mr Hobbs said union members at Tiwai were already concerned about staffing levels, and morale at the plant was nearing an all-time low.

Separate from this week's revelations, union members had already been working with Tiwai management over several issues, including a dispute over the interpretation and application of employment agreements at the smelter, he said.

Staff had also raised concerns with the union over the role-reduction programme, he said.

"As people leave they are not replaced and people are shuffled around internally and redeployed. However, in that exercise they [smelter management] do spell out that if people turn down a redeployment opportunity, the company reserves the right to terminate them by reason of redundancy," Mr Hobbs said.

However, there were no redundancy provisions for workers in their employment agreements, which meant there would be no compensation pay, he said.

"So, if things go wrong in that [sale] process, they are awfully vulnerable at that point in time."

One of the main disputes the union had with management was over lieu days, which, if the union won, could cost the company a six-figure sum, Mr Hobbs said.

Tiwai management had told staff that if the union won the dispute the smelter would pay out across the board to whoever qualified, he said.

"When they made that decision it would have increased the cost of the dispute [to Tiwai] probably five-fold," Mr Hobbs said.

New Zealand Aluminium Smelters general manager Ryan Cavanagh responded yesterday about union claims.

"The law requires us not to disclose details of the mediation to anyone other than those directly involved," he said. "Our position is that we are doing the right thing by our employees and complying both with the law and also our contracts. It is our understanding that we are continuing with mediation and meeting in September." ..

Meanwhile, Southland businesses are being told not to panic after Friday's news that the smelter was in a difficult financial situation.

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Venture Southland group manager of enterprise and strategic projects Steve Canny said businesses should be aware that input costs would be reviewed at the smelter and to assess the impact it was likely to have on individual businesses.

Southland Chamber of Commerce chief executive Richard Hay said the smelter's financial situation was not reflective of the region as it had been hit by factors that would not affect a lot of regional businesses.

However, some local suppliers could be affected because some businesses in the region were heavily reliant on servicing the smelter, Mr Hay said.

He had spoken to smelter executives and was under the impression nothing worse was expected.

"They are a professional business taking prudent steps to safeguard everyone in the region."

- The Southland Times

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