WINDALCO's aluminium refinery in Ewarton, St Catherine, was reopened yesterday -- a year and four months after it was forced to close in the face of a global recession which caused a slump in the demand for the product.
The reopening of the bauxite plant is expected to boost the economy of Ewarton, Linstead, and surrounding communities in St Catherine, as in addition to the direct employment of 629 people, dozens of others are expected to benefit from the plant's operation.
The reopening, which was yesterday touted as part of the Government's initiative to revitalise the bauxite industry by increasing efficiency, expanding output and enhancing competitiveness, is also expected to boost the country's foreign exchange earnings.
The bauxite industry that had seen declines over the years was especially hit hard by the recent global economic downturn, which resulted in thousands of sector workers losing their jobs as plants closed their doors or downsized operations.
Windalco's Ewarton plant was among three of the island's four refineries that ceased operations between March and May of last year, which was said to be among the worst periods in the annals of the world aluminium and local bauxite/alumina industry.
The Ewarton plant — in which the Russian aluminium refinery giant UC Rusal has a majority share of 90 per cent — is being reopened at a time when the demand for aluminium is set to increase substantially, especially towards the end of the year, due to heavy consumption in the burgeoning Chinese and Russian markets.
Speaking at a ceremony yesterday afternoon on the plant's grounds to mark the re-opening, Mining and Energy Minister James Robertson said the move was timely due to "strong positive movements towards a global recovery" in the demand for the product.
"As a result, the Jamaican industry has begun to undergo a rejuvenation spurred by the positive turn in global developments," Robertson said. "The impact on the national economy will be positive and immediate in terms of employment -- where the toll had been severe -- but also in foreign exchange earnings and Government revenue," he added.
The industry is a vital part of the Jamaican economy, providing four per cent of the country's GDP and more than US$1 billion in export earnings, according to statistics provided by the Ministry of Mining and Energy yesterday.
Windalco's Ewarton closure last year March left a void, which represented approximately 15 per cent of the country's alumina capacity, according to ministry figures.
Yesterday, Igor Dorofeev, UC Rusal's country manager, told the Observer that the 50-year-old plant has the capacity to produce 650,000 tonnes of aluminium per year. He said that production is estimated to stand at 300,000 tonnes for the remaining five months of the year. Production started yesterday, Dorofeev said.
Apart from the direct employment of 629 that comes with the reopening of the sprawling compound, the spin-off is expected to substantially benefit the communities in close proximity to the plant, mines and port, as well as the "many service providers to Windalco", Robertson said.
"They have relied on the operations for employment and the sustainability of the many small businesses that rely on the patronage of the company and its workforce," he said.
"Today is a bright day for us," the minister added, while calling on stakeholders, including unions, to "step up to the plate and put the Jamaican bauxite/alumina industry back on the forefront of the global alumina industry".