Kawerau workers spend last week at mill, hoping new industry will buy it

By Herewini Waikato

Boycie Te Rire is a retired veteran of the Kawerau Norske Skog Tasman Paper Mill who knows its closure in seven days is going to be hard for his family and others in the Kawerau township.

“There have been people only 10 years into it,” he says. “How will they pay for their mortgages, cars, and others? I really feel for these young ones.”

The mill is closing due to the decline in the mill’s sole product, newsprint, and that has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 epidemic lockdowns. The mill has seen a structural decline in the market in both its export and domestic markets.

“We are a significant exporter of newsprint so it is no longer a sustainable business,” mill general manager Steve Brine says.

Selldown

The mill closes with the loss of 160 jobs, 55% of them held by Māori, on June 30. All its assets will be sold.

Union official Tane Phillips was there when the announcement was made.

“There was a little bit of shock when it was announced but this has been on the cards for a few years. The industry has not been travelling well.

“We have had three machines on this site but we have had only one operating for a few years.” 

The mill opened in 1955, producing more than 15 million tonnes of publication paper over its lifetime.

‘Stronger and better’

Meanwhile, neighbouring town Whakatane has been given a new lease on life after an international consortium bought the mill there, which has saved 150 jobs.

The mill is running financial planning sessions, outplacement support, and groups to discuss issues with the workers. They are working with the Ministry of Social Development to look for new jobs.

Both Phillips and Te Rire are adamant Kawerau will come back stronger and better from this. Phillips says, “There is really high hope in the community that whoever invests in this site there might be more jobs. We have got a railway line straight to the port, geothermal activity here. There is a lot of hope here with the right investment.”

Te Rire says Tūwharetoa will be strong “and we will help each other get through this.

“That is what the old people have always told us to do, take care of everyone no matter who or where they are from.”