By Alex Bainbridge
NEWCASTLE — BHP appears confident of little opposition to its plans to eliminate 2000 jobs from its steelworks here before 2002. This will leave only 1000 people employed by BHP in Newcastle, compared with approximately 12,000 in 1980.
The plans were announced on June 30 following months of speculation about the future of the steelworks. Steelworks director Bob Kirby says that large-scale job cuts are planned after the year 2000, when the company will begin building an electric-arc furnace to replace its existing coal-fired one.
Several months ago, the company announced that the steelworks would be "upgraded," which would mean job losses; however, no time frame was announced. Kirby pledged then that BHP would make a "major capital investment" and had a "long-term commitment to Newcastle". Such phrases have been repeated by BHP officials since.
The immediate effect of the June 30 announcement is a sense of relief among current employees that their jobs are safe "at least for seven years". The establishment media have gone to lengths to promote this idea, and the Australian Workers Union secretary, Maurie Rudd, said that the decision "lifted the uncertainty" under which people have been working.
The announcement was accompanied by a promise to offer a substantial amount of land, currently occupied by the steelworks, to other industries for redevelopment. It is claimed this will "stimulate" jobs. The package also included a promise to spend $50 million on environmental upgrades.
BHP chief executive officer Ron McNeilly in Melbourne reportedly said he is not surprised by the "general acceptance" of the job cuts. "I think what we did was communicate positively what we had in mind", he said. He also claimed BHP had to cut its work force in order to remain internationally competitive, but that this would be done with "appropriate consultation".
Geoff Payne, riggers' shop delegate at BHP, told Green Left these plans come at a time when BHP is making record profits. He argues that if new technology is being introduced, it should be used to benefit the employees. "Shortening the working week with no loss in pay would share the work around and help protect job security, even beyond seven years, while also maintaining living standards", he said.
Payne pointed out that there could be no real security for workers while BHP's books remain closed. "At the moment, we only know what the company decides to tell us, when it's convenient for them. There should be no business secrets. Workers need to have access to all the information about the company in order to know what measures should be taken to ensure job security, wages and conditions as well as broader questions of social justice and environmental sustainability. We're the ones who do the work, so we should have ultimate say over what happens to the workplace."