When staff arrived at Carter Holt Harvey’s Morwell sawmill on Tuesday for an 11am site meeting they did not expect that half an hour later they would be walking out uncertain if they would have a job in three months’ time.
Inside the meeting, staff were told the mill’s supply of pine logs which are used to create structural-grade timber for residential houses was drying up as a result of 2009’s Black Saturday bushfires and other fires in 2014.
They were given an explanation of their entitlements and told the trans-Tasman company would conduct a consultation process before any decision is made.
But with no alternative to existing supplier, Hancock Victoria Plantations, it is hard to see how the 160 jobs could be saved – bringing to an end more than 35 years of timber production at the sawmill.
After it concluded, workers told the media the mood inside the meeting was one of anger.
Morwell’s Julie Smith has worked at the mill for five years and left the meeting visibly upset.
Ms Smith said the workers had no idea closure was imminent and wondered where she would find work next.
“I’m a single parent, where am I going to get a job? Where’s any of us going to get a job?”
“I’ll stay for three months because I don’t see that we’re going to get jobs, none of us are going to get jobs.”
The closure comes at a bad time for the region, following the closure of Hazelwood Power Station at the end of March with the loss of 750 jobs.
In the state budget, the State Government announced $110 million to establish a timber plantation in the Latrobe Valley.
But it will do nothing to improve the situation, with the pine logs used by CHH at the mill taking at least 28 years to mature.
The company has a sawmill at Yarram which produces non-structural timbers and employs 56 people who are unaffected by the decision.
Morwell employee Chris Jackson was pessimistic about the employment opportunities which exist in the Valley.
“I’d love to stay here but the way things are, you just can’t – you have to work wherever you can,” Mr Jackson said.
“I’m going to have to look for work, I’ll do anything, but I don’t think there’s any work around here.
“Unfortunately, it’s sad but you’ve got to face the facts.”
Media were summoned to the mill on Tuesday afternoon, where CHH chief executive for wood products Australia Geoff Harris said the company would consult – but was not optimistic that a solution could be found.
“We want to go through that consultation process – as I said, closure of the mill is highly likely,” Mr Harris said.
“We’ve given (the employees) line of sight of their entitlements as early as we think we can within this process and now we’re under that journey.”
But he held out the option of redeployment to other sawmills where possible.
“It’s not just Yarram – we have a network of mills across the countryside, We have businesses New Zealand,” Mr Harris said.
“I think the critical thing is it’s not easy to pick up and move… but throughout the consultation process we’ll make all our people here aware of what roles are available throughout the network.”
The company said the Morwell sawmill could not be repurposed to produce non-structural timber because it has no market for the extra timber produced and other sawmills were already competing for depleted log supplies.
The Electrical Trade Union’s Gippsland branch organiser, Peter Mooney, was at the meeting and said the decision would have impacts beyond the affected workforce.
“The flow-on effect will be massive into the community here, similar to the Hazelwood closure,” Mr Mooney said.
“We’ll be calling on the government today… asking them to afford these workers the same courtesy to what the Hazelwood workers and we’ll be calling on them for that today.”
A statement released by State Agriculture and Regional Development Minister Jaala Pullford confirmed workers would receive support from the Latrobe Valley Authority, which would serve as a “one stop shop for workers, where they can access support services and other assistance”.
State Member for Morwell Russell Northe was outside the mill ahead of the media briefing and called on the State Government to take action to protect the mill’s future.
“They’ve made a commitment to intervene at ASH in Heyfield and they should make that same commitment to do here what they can do at all costs and work with the company to protect these jobs,” Mr Northe said.
Employees affected by the potential closure of Carter Holt Harvey will receive the same assistance from the Latrobe Valley Authority as Hazelwood workers.
LVA chief executive Karen Cain yesterday confirmed the arrangement after the State Government issued a statement on Tuesday saying support for workers would be available through the organisation.
“As everyone digests the news, we want to assure the community that we will continue to work hard to ensure the business, workers and their families are given the best possible support during this period,” Ms Cain said.
“The support currently being provided to affected Hazelwood workers as part of the Worker Transition Service has been extended to Carter Holt Harvey employees.”
Carter Holt Harvey workers would have access to receive help applying for new jobs, retraining, financial counselling and personal support, she said.
“We recognise this is a really difficult time for Carter Holt Harvey employees and their families and we will assist in any way needed over the months ahead,”
“We encourage Carter Holt Harvey employees who would like to speak to one of our transition service staff to ring ahead on 1800 136 762 so we can make sure we are available to see you immediately.
“The service operates from our Morwell office at 131 Princes Drive Morwell.”
Hancook Victoria Plantations says it has been in discussions with Carter Holt Harvey about how to meet its supply obligations but the quality and volume of sawlogs will soon drop as a result of bushfires.
In a statement, HVP said the Black Saturday bushfires of 2009 plus other fires in 2014 had destroyed seven million trees in its pine plantation. The company said it was in force majeure as a result of the 2009 bushfires.
Force majeure is a common clause in contracts which releases both parties from their obligations when an extraordinary event or circumstance beyond their control prevents one or both of the parties from honouring the deal.
“We have replanted all affected areas, and planted and purchased more plantations at a cost of more than $50 million,” the statement said. “However, the life cycle of trees is significant, at least 28 years for pine trees to reach maturity for use as sawlogs.
“There are simply not enough trees left. This will not change until the replanted trees reach maturity after 2032.”