The day the axe fell on the Tiwai Point aluminium smelter


At 8am on Thursday, a mass text message was sent to Tiwai Point aluminium smelter staff to tell them their jobs would no longer exist in 14 months.

While it was widely known the smelter’s future was up in the air, the decision to wind-down the smelter, which would result in the direct loss of 1000 jobs and 1600 jobs indirectly connected to the smelter, almost came out of the blue.

Rio Tinto announced in October it was considering closing the smelter. A strategic review of the Tiwai operation to determine its ongoing viability was due in March, however was delayed because of the Covid-19 lockdown.

It’s understood workers were warned in advance that they may learn of the closure news via the media, the sensitive nature of the announcement meaning the Stock Exchange had to be notified first.

The text message Tiwai Point aluminium smelter staff received at 8am on Thursday, July 9, to tell them the company was preparing to close.

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The text message Tiwai Point aluminium smelter staff received at 8am on Thursday, July 9, to tell them the company was preparing to close.

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The text sent to staff on Thursday read: “NZAS MESSAGE: Rio Tinto has confirmed that following the conclusion of the strategic review it will start planning for the wind-down of operations and the eventual closure of NZAS. NZAS has given notice to terminate its power contract with Meridian Energy. Crew briefings are scheduled to share more info. We know this is a stressful time. Keeping yourself and your crewmates safe is the biggest priority.”

Some staff had finished the overnight shift at 7.30am, not expecting to return to work until Monday.

Anyone who missed the text was phoned by their managers soon after the news broke.

Other staff found out through a ‘phone tree’, where everyone received a call from someone then they in turn rang the next person on their list.

New Zealand Aluminium Smelter staff & family members, from left, Shane Sawkins, Clayton Talamahina, Iki Talamahina, and Tim Talamahina. [File photo].

Robyn Edie/Stuff

New Zealand Aluminium Smelter staff & family members, from left, Shane Sawkins, Clayton Talamahina, Iki Talamahina, and Tim Talamahina. [File photo].

Confirmation of the closure still caught Tim Talamahina and other workers off-guard.

The smelter is a family affair for Talamahina. His father, Iki, has worked at Tiwai for close to 40 years, while Tim has worked there for 20 years. Tim’s brother Clayton also works at the smelter, as has brother-in-law Shane Sawkins.

“I thought I was prepared for it, but no – not really,” Talamahina said.

At 8.07am, a press release was sent by New Zealand Rio Tinto external relations director Jen Nolan, alerting media of the decision.

Meridian Energy, the smelter’s major power supplier, only found out about the decision to terminate its electricity contract with the company about the same time that it was publicly announced on Thursday.

“We were as informed as the rest of the market,” chief executive Neal Barclay said.

Within an hour, Invercargill mayor Sir Tim Shadbolt appeared on Breakfast describing the plans “absolutely shattering”.

Kavinda Herath / Stuff

Invercargill Mayor Sir Tim Shadbolt talks about the closure of the Tiwai Point aluminium smelter.

”Not just because of the jobs, that’s the worst scenario, but it’s the families, schools and small businesses that are dependent on the smelter.”

A meeting for southern business leaders was called, to be held in the Findex Invercargill office – where Southland Chamber of Commerce president Neil McAra works.

By this time, word had spread through the region of the news.

On the streets of Invercargill, stunned members of the public said the decision was terrible for the region, and there were concerns about an exodus of people leaving the district.

“It’s a real tragedy for Southland,” retired Invercargill builder Noel Ruffell said, adding that a lot of people would suffer.

At 10.15am smelter chief executive Stewart Hamilton held a stand up for media outside the smelter.

“It’s been very difficult for the staff involved and those in the wider community.”

The decision was not taken lightly, but the smelter was losing money, he said.

Robyn Edie/Stuff

Tiwai Point aluminium smelter chief executive Stewart Hamilton discusses the closure of the smelter.

At 10.39am, Minister of Finance Grant Robertson and Minister of Energy Megan Woods released a statement saying the Government will support the Southland economy in the wake of the decision.

“This day has unfortunately been on the cards for some time now, but nevertheless, the final decision is a blow to Southland and all those who work at the smelter,” Robertson said.

“As we have done in Taranaki, we will support a just transition to more job opportunities. We know the strengths of Southland, and we want to build on them in areas such as agriculture, aquaculture and manufacturing. There is also an opportunity to support other energy intensive projects like green hydrogen and data centres.’’

By shortly after 11am, fleeing investors had wiped more than $2.8 billion off the value of NZX-listed electricity companies.

At 11.07am, Labour List MP Liz Craig released a statement saying she was devastated to hear the news and her thoughts were with all the workers, families and businesses affected.

“I spoke with [Prime Minister] Jacinda Ardern this morning about the impact this will have on Southland, and am pleased that Grant Robertson has already signalled the Government will support the Southland community in our transition, in areas such as agriculture, aquaculture and manufacturing.”

She said she had invited Ardern, Woods and Robertson to visit Invercargill to discuss how the Government might help us support those affected, grow local jobs and create a sustainable future for the Southland economy.

At 11.30am business and community leaders met and were briefed by Hamilton.

After the meeting, Hamilton left through a side door, however Great South chief executive Graham Budd and McAra fronted the media to say the were refusing to accept the Tiwai Point aluminium smelter would close and have vowed to fight to the bitter end to avoid the loss of 2260 direct and indirect jobs.

Kavinda Herath / Stuff

Great South chief executive Graham Budd and Southland Chamber of Commerce president Neil McAra address the media after meeting with Tiwai aluminium smelter boss Stew Hamilton and Southland leaders on Thursday.

‘’We are not going to give up till the last breath has been fought on this issue.’’

However, on Friday, Barclay said he expected the smelter would wind down its operations ahead of next August as it closed its potlines.

“We have had no real engagement with them as to how they operationally plan to do that, but we expect to have that in the next few days, as I do understand they have got a plan,” he said.

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