Whakatāne Mill closure: 'People are racing around looking for jobs'

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern visits Whakatāne Mill - a large employer in the town - during the election campaign.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern visits Whakatāne Mill - a large employer in the town - during the election campaign. Photo credit: RNZ

By Meriana Johnsen of RNZ

A worker at one of Whakatāne's biggest employers has warned at least half of the 200 people being made redundant will struggle to find work.

The Whakatāne Mill confirmed this week it will close at the end of June, a huge blow for the Bay of Plenty town.

For over 40 years, Rua Williams has worked at the Whakatāne Mill, but soon he'll be clocking out for the last time.

The First Union delegate will retire now the mill is closing, but he's worried about how his other colleagues will fare.

"We've got middle-aged people, it's going to be difficult for them to find employment - young fullas, they should be able to make a go of it," Williams said.

While the fitters and electricians would easily find a new job, Williams said it would be difficult for those working on the production line. But he hoped their strong work ethic would hold them in good stead.

All of the 210 staff at the mill, which makes paper and packaging products for export, will lose their jobs.

Over half of them are Māori.

Williams said many were trying to find jobs now, but were faced with a tough choice.

"People are racing around looking for jobs now but the company has put out a thing that if you're not here ... you don't get your redundancy, so it's a bit harsh on our workers because some of our young fullas, they've got to secure their futures."

Whakatāne mayor Judy Turner said the town had been left reeling, and the closure would affect more than just the mill workers.

"There's all the private contractors who rely hugely on the mill for their work programme, and their workers, and the implication there and we have no sense yet of how many other jobs are going to come into question now that it's a definite closure," Taylor said.

The mill decided to shut down after losing its biggest customer, Swiss packaging company SIG.

East Coast MP Kiri Allan is hoping the business won't stay closed for long.

"My sincere hope is that there is a commercial party that will come to the table and see this as a prospect for the town, so that we can retain those jobs and retain that mill as an operational mill," she said.

If that doesn't happen, Allan was confident people would be able to find jobs on regional projects such as the new commercial boat harbour.

"Those types of those industries... heavily rely on skills that are transferable from industries like in the mill; welding fitting, engineering and the like," she said.

The Minister for Economic and Regional Development, and Forestry, Stuart Nash, said closing manufacturers such as the Whakatāne Mill was not sustainable for local economies.

"We've got a reputation as one of the largest exporters of logs, I don't think that's a very good space. We want to be one of the largest exporters of processed lumber," he said.

He's working with companies and unions to reform the forestry industry.

Waiariki MP Rawiri Waititi wants to set up a "transit lounge" for kaimahi, where social services and upskilling is readily available to those leaving.

"These services will be requested and determined by them and that is what the Whānau Ora approach is, that this particular process must be driven by those kaimahi to support them and their whānau," he said.

Local iwi are also stepping up to help.

In a statement, Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Awa chief executive Leonie Simpson said they're finding jobs for people within iwi-led projects.

These include, Kainga, a new cultural hub and visitors centre, and Te Ara Mahi, a technical marine training school.