Paper mill company Oji Fibre Solutions issues pre-Christmas lockout notice to employees after strike threat

The Japanese owner of a paper mill says it's been forced to make the "difficult decision" of issuing a lockout notice to its employees after a proposed strike left it with no other choice. 

The factory, based in the Auckland suburb of Penrose, normally operates 24 hours per day, seven days per week, but the owners say work will stop on Saturday for five days. It says it needs to manage the expectations of its customers.

"We understand the seriousness for everyone involved, but we have no option", says OjiFS CEO, Dr John Ryder. He says the decision follows multiple rounds of negotiations, "We believe we have made a good offer to our workers, with significant pay increases on the table, and we want to resolve this as quickly as possible." 

OjiFS says the Panmure mill is one of two paper recycling facilities in New Zealand, recycling over 180,000 tonnes of wastepaper per year. OjiFS claims production workers at the Penrose Mill are currently paid on average over $100,000 per year. 

But First Union and E tū say its members were "not being taken seriously" by the employer during pay negotiations and that strike action is "a last resort". 

First Union organiser Justin Wallace says its members "are in a really tough spot - they're trying to fix historical pay issues that have resulted in them now having to work longer and harder than ever to support their families... Meanwhile, the cost of living continues to rise, causing more stress and anxiety, and wages stay the same."

The pre-Christmas lockout notice comes as the unions say Oji Group, the world's fifth-largest pulp and paper company, saw pre-tax profit growth of $73 million in the year to December 2021. First Union says its own analysis shows total pay for Key Management Personnel at Oji Group increased by 30 percent in the same period, from $11.2m to $14.5m. But the mill's Panmure production workers "can't support their families at the moment, and they deserve a real hearing at the negotiating table", says Wallace.

It follows an almost six-week lockout at a toilet paper factory owned by Essity in Kawerau earlier this year over a pay dispute. Nearly 150 employees were locked out of work and went without pay until a pay deal was struck in September. Some families were forced to rely on the help of the community for meals and to survive the period.