Tasman Mill closure ‘not as devastating’ as first thought but fears for younger workers

The closure of Norske Skog paper mill, with all 160 jobs lost, has been described as the “end of an era” for a town created for the industry.

But residents believe Kawerau will endure.

Norske Skog confirmed on Wednesday the 66-year-old mill would be closing.

Workers were told it would stop production at the end of this month. Most workers would take redundancy from July 16 once a clean-up had been completed.

A Kawerau man who has worked at mill since 1976, and did not want to be named, told NZME there was a lot of sadness around the closure.

“This has all happened kind of quick. When the word came down that we only have a month to go, that was the hard part.

“It is a bit sad, there’s a lot of history there. The town was built around that mill and there are a lot of first generations here, brought up in this town.”

He was nearing retirement but felt for the younger workers now searching for new jobs.

“For me, it’s a relief after all these years, the shift work is hard yakka. These younger guys, they’ve moved here and they have mortgages and families to look after.”

Kawerau retiree Symon Ripaki, a former maintenance worker at the mill, said in its heyday it felt like it would be there forever.

“They’ve been slowly shutting it down and it’s affected the town a lot. People’s livelihoods are affected. A lot of them have young kids and they rely on the mill. Now it’s got the chop and they can’t find work.

“Back in the day it was lovely, it was awesome. Everyone was happy and healthy, the thoughts back then were there was a promise it would last forever but we didn’t foresee the technology that has taken over.”

Property management business owner Sonia Markham, who has been in Kawerau four years, said the mill closure would dent the town but not kill it.

“This town is strong enough to get through this but it is going to really hurt the families involved.

“It’s the end of an era. You’ve got generations of people who worked at that mill – you’ve got granddads, grandsons, dads, uncles.

“We have some wonderful people in this community. I’d hate to see that diminished.”

Cayman’s Sports Bar, a popular hangout for mill workers and other locals, was already feeling the impact of the pending closure, bar manager Ashok Kumar said.

“People are worried about their jobs. After June 30 they won’t have work and don’t know what to do,” he said.

“Customers who usually come three or four times a week, now we see them once or twice in a month. It’s already slowing down and will impact other businesses in the town as well. There is a lot of worry.”

Kawerau District Library and Museum manager Susan Harris, whose husband has worked at the mill for 42 years, said it was sad for the town but the town would get through.

“A lot of the workforce lives in Whakatāne,” she said.

“We’re fine with it, they’ve been talking about it for quite some time so it’s not a shock.”

Her husband had many skillsets from his time at the mill “so we’re not too worried”.

“The long-term workers will get good redundancy payouts but I feel for the younger ones who haven’t been there long.

“It is quite sad from a historical perspective, the mill is the reason the town was built in the first place.”

Kawerau mayor Malcolm Campbell said the news was upsetting but the town had to live with it.

“Norske approached us about 20 years ago when I first became mayor to say things were not good in the paper industry and we should probably start looking at diversifying and looking for other ways of creating jobs.”

His heart went out to those losing their jobs. About 25 to 30 per cent of them lived in Kawerau, he said.

“It is not a good situation, don’t get me wrong, but it is not going to be as devastating as we all thought.

“The most important thing now is that we need to help the ones it is definitely going to affect and let the company exit with some dignity.”

The mill was the council’s biggest ratepayer.

“It has to be a concern – that is a big percentage of our income. The whole reason we were kept as a district was to service the pulp and paper industry,” Campbell said.

Council chief executive Russell George said the council acknowledged the “huge contribution” the company has made to the district, region and nation.

The council was analysing the effect of the rates loss. It would also continue to support the Industrial Symbiosis Kawerau partnership with iwi, industries and Eastern Bay neighbours to “develop viable, interconnected businesses and relationships that balance social, environmental and economic drivers”.

Planned projects such as the Kawerau container terminal and an off-highway road link still looked set to go ahead.

The district could position itself for the green economy with the renewable geothermal energy and process heat available for industry, George said.

E tū union delegate and industry spokesperson Bruce Habgood said although some workers were relieved to have clarity, the sense of loss was real.

“There’s a strong sense of mourning that the mill is shutting down.

“While the mill now isn’t the huge employer it used to be, there are many other businesses that have been created to support it – and they may really suffer ‘death by a thousand cuts’ once the mill’s gone.”

He said outplacement services would be available to workers, but E tū was looking at how to formally recognise workers’ skills gained on the job to help them find new jobs, as well as reskilling and training opportunities.

Waiariki-based Labour list MP Tamati Coffey thanked those who worked to soften the blow for the affected workers, who were spread around the wider Eastern Bay.

The Government would back community-led efforts to support affected whānau and the Ministry of Social Development would be “on call as needed”.

“We all have a role to play in ensuring all kaimahi receive the same level of access to opportunities for their future – regardless of where they live – especially for our young people.”

Norske Skog has previously linked the closure to declining demand for newsprint.

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