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WINDALCO eyes reopening of Ewarton plant

BY GARFIELD MYERS Editor-at-Large South/Central Bureau myersg@jamaicaobserver.com

Friday, January 22, 2010    

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MANDEVILLE, Manchester -- Even as it gets ready to implement a redundancy programme for all permanent staff by March 31, WINDALCO is contemplating the re-opening of its Ewarton alumina refinery in St Catherine.

The reopening, an authoritative source told the Observer yesterday, could be "possibly by the end of the year".

The source, with strong links to the bauxite/alumina sector, said representatives of the world's largest aluminium producer UC Rusal, which has majority ownership and control of WINDALCO, have been in the island since the start of the new year and had discussions with the Government on the Ewarton plant.

"There are positive signs that possibly by the end of the year the Ewarton plant will be re-opened," the source, who declined to be named, said.

The source stressed that any re-opening would be dependent on a "smaller staff" and "different terms" than had existed previously. The current workforce at Ewarton numbers 310, inclusive of agricultural and support staff.

All told, 762, permanent staff positions are to be made redundant at the WINDALCO (West Indies Alumina Company) locations, inclusive of Ewarton, the Kirkvine refinery and head office in Manchester, and its shipping port -- Port Esquivel in St Catherine.

WINDALCO's permanent staff have been operating on the basis of 40 per cent cut in salary and a reduction of hours to a three-day work-week since the suspension of mining and refining operations nine months ago because of the crash in the global metals market and the worst economic recession in decades.

Yesterday, senior communications officer for WINDALCO, Kayon Wallace, said only, that "any comment at this time would be premature". She confirmed that officials of the Russia-based UC Rusal -- which has controlling interest in 55 per cent of Jamaica's bauxite/alumina sector (when at full production), including the closed Alpart plant in Nain, St Elizabeth -- "are on the island".

Efforts late yesterday to reach Mining Minister James Robertson failed.

Vincent Morrison, president of the National Workers' Union (NWU), which represents bauxite/alumina workers, told the Observer that he had heard "such reports being bandied about for some time but had heard nothing official from the company". He said that his organisation would "welcome" any re-opening. "We believe that the recovery of the Jamaican economy is tied centrally to the bauxite/alumina sector," he said.

There was extreme pessimism in Government and bauxite/alumina circles last year about the ability of the heavily indebted UC Rusal to revitalise its role locally. Pessimism was heightened by high energy costs at the Rusal-owned plants.

But bauxite/alumina sources say hope has been growing because of a slow but definite revival in the world's metals market as major industrialised economies gradually recover. Also, UC Rusal's prospects have risen following the completion this week of an elaborate deal to refinance US$4.5 billion of debt which is reported to exceed US$15 billion.

The closure early last year of operations at the WINDALCO plants as well as at Alpart chopped more than half Jamaica's earnings from bauxite/alumina, said to have netted in the region of US$500 million annually at its height. The downturn also left about 2,000 bauxite/alumina workers without jobs.

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