Kawerau mill closure underway, healthy exit packages revealed for some workers

  • 28/06/2021

By Oriini Kaipara

The closure of the Kawerau pulp and paper mill is underway with the last paper machine due to be shut off for good on Tuesday. 

Norwegian company Norske Skog, which owns the Tasman Mill, announced it is closing it down for good, making 160 people redundant.

But not all will be left in limbo. In fact, some stand to gain healthy exit packages - including those who have been at the mill for generations. 

At 74-years-old Rei Shortland, who is known fondly to his Norske Skog whānau as Shorty, is the Tasman Mill's oldest worker. He's also served the longest - 55 years next month. 

Most of that time, he's been in the mill's storeroom where "there used to be 36 of us but now it's just me".

Shortland is one of 160 staff to lose their jobs when the mill closes for good next month.

The town of Kawerau only exists because the mill was built to service it, and even with all the jobs there, the town is struggling with high unemployment and other social issues. 

But the mill's general manager Steve Brine says staff are remarkably positive. 

"I don't think it's doom and gloom - we're not seeing that. This has been driven by the decline in the market and is not because of anything anybody here has done."

Unlike most, Shortland says the timing is in his favour because he'll get a good redundancy payout.

"I told my wife I'm ready to retire this year, then Norske Skog told us workers they are closing the mill. 'Oh well,' I thought. 'I'm lucky'."

Tane Phillips from the Pulp and Paper Workers Union says the more experienced workers will "gain more than the younger guys" but the younger workers will have the opportunity to work in other places. 

That's because the younger guys often have a broader range of skills and plenty of time to learn.

The last of the mill's three paper machines will stop operating on Tuesday, but it's not just a case of shutting down the final machine after 66 years of production. Staff will remain on-site for two weeks to clean up and prepare everything for land and asset sales. 

Speculation over what will become of the paper mill or potential buyers points to the existing companies that also operate on the same site - Asaleo and Oji Fibre Solutions. 

But slowing down in real life is something Shortland says will be a challenge.

"I look at it this way I have to keep my body and my mind busy otherwise I may become forgetful." 

The mill's closure means Kawerau and its 7500 residents must move on from the very thing their community was founded on.

The only certainty is that every ending is followed by a new beginning.