Redundancies leave no locals at JISCo Alpart; MP Witter says some will get back their jobs in January

South/Central Bureau

Monday, December 02, 2019

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NAIN, St Elizabeth — Member of Parliament for St Elizabeth South Eastern, Frank Witter says the immediate situation is temporary.

However, there is consternation that as of Wednesday for the time being at least only Chinese employees, no Jamaicans, will be at the JISCo Alpart alumina plant here, following its shutdown to allow modernisation and expansion.

“Tuesday is the last day for Jamaican (unionised and supervisory) workers. Every single one has been made redundant and we don't know what is going to happen next or how this is going to work out,” an administrative employee told the Jamaica Observer Central late Saturday.

Witter, a member of the governing Jamaica Labour Party, sounded an optimistic note when contacted, insisting that early in 2020 Jamaicans will resume work at the alumina plant.

He said he had been assured that about “100 to 120” of those being cut will return to their jobs beginning in January, with the start-up of rehabilitation and modernisation of the more than 50-year-old plant.

The modernisation project is expected to last about two years, during which time there will be no alumina production, though mining and stockpiling of bauxite ore from the Manchester Plateau continues.

“Everyone must remember that what we have now is a 100 per cent redundancy programme which was agreed on. My understanding is that come January, the situation will change and about 100 to 120 people will start to get back their jobs as the restructuring of the plant begins,” Witter said.

The MP told Observer Central he had received assurances of this from within Government and from the executive of JISCo Alpart.

However, the laid-off administrator, who declined to be named, told Observer Central that he and others, now unemployed, had no idea as to what was ahead for them.

“We haven't been told anything; we don't know what is going to happen,” he said.

News came in early November that agreement had been reached between Chinese-owned JISCo Alpart and three unions representing workers Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (BITU), the National Workers' Union (NWU), and the Union of Clerical, Administrative and Supervisory Employees (UCASE) on a redundancy programme affecting 800 workers.

The Observer had reported back then that “up to 300 of the workers could be recalled to carry on the modernisation of the outdated refinery... About 100 of the workers have already been retained to work on it, and their unions are hoping that the figure will climb to 300 over the period of reconstruction.

“The management of the plant... has also agreed on the possibility (of) re-engaging some of those who have lost their jobs when the updated plant resumes production.”

As the situation now stands, reports say redundancies are being implemented over three phases, with the last set for tomorrow.

The administrator who spoke to Observer Central recalled that in 2009 when Alpart then owned by Russian company UC Rusal was shut down, 90 Jamaicans remained on full-time employment until the plant reopened under Chinese management in 2017.

A Jamaican core unit also remained in place back in the 1980s when the plant was closed for four years, he said.

“It is unprecedented that there is no Jamaican in the plant (while overseas employees remain)... What is happening in the country?” he wondered.

Michael Stewart, the Opposition People's National Party Member of Parliament for Manchester Southern JISCo Alpart's main mining area and traditionally home to many Alpart workers said he had urged the JISCo management to, at the very least, ensure Jamaicans employed in the Public Relations Department remain on the job.

“As you know, there are often tensions in mining areas between the company and communities. The public relations people are depended on to keep things calm. What's to happen now that the entire public relations staff are being let go?” he asked.

Stewart said there was clear evidence of what could go wrong at a recent meeting between residents of one community on the Manchester Plateau and JISCo Alpart management.

“A Chinese gentleman came and the people couldn't understand what he was saying,” said Stewart.

“If they don't keep on the public relations staff, there are going to be serious communication problems in relation to language and culture,” said Stewart.

“This is an unprecedented situation as far as I know,” said the Manchester Southern MP. “I have never seen anything quite like this.”

The situation was especially critical, he said, since bauxite mining and stockpiling of the red ore are causing serious dust nuisance in some communities.

“We have these huge piles of (bauxite ore), and at high altitude the wind is very strong and it is causing problems... there is need for good communication,” he said.

Councillor Layton Smith (PNP, Myersville Division) said a big problem was the absence of information.

“Nobody is telling us anything,” he said.

Chinese metals giant Jiuquan Iron and Steel Company (JISCo) bought the then mothballed Alpart plant from UC Rusal in 2016 for US$299 million.

It was well established at the time that the ageing plant said to be among the world's most inefficient would need extensive modernisation.

However, JISCo went ahead with reopening of the plant in 2017 apparently because of the relatively high price of alumina on the global market at the time then in excess of US$500 per tonne.

But the price plunged in 2019, leading to heavy losses and the decision to close the alumina plant while the retooling project takes place.

The Alpart plant is a major employer in St Elizabeth and Manchester. As has happened before, its closure is expected to have major impact on the local and wider economy.

However, Mining Minister Robert Montague told Parliament in September that the upcoming “modernisation and expansion programme [at JISCo Alpart] will be one of the largest investments in the history of the country. Total investment is projected at US$1.1 billion when completed...”

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