2 Jun 2021

Marsden Pt workers fear major job losses as shutdown looms

From Checkpoint, 5:19 pm on 2 June 2021

Workers at Northland's oil refinery say the region should be bracing for the biggest loss of jobs in a generation - and not enough is being done to cushion the blow. 

Plans for a $250 million shutdown of Marsden Point, to turn it into an import-only terminal, are already well advanced. While Refinery NZ says it doesn't yet know how many jobs are on the line, workers estimate hundreds could be gone by the end of next year. 

They say that will have a massive impact on the region, which already has some of the country's highest unemployment rates.

Rob, a panel man at the refinery who has worked there for 18 years who did not want his full name used, said news of the shutdown was devastating. 

"Some people might have been hanging on to a little bit of hope but the stock exchange announcement last week and subsequent meetings with management, it's finally hit home that this is it. 

"The show's over, it's coming fast ... we're starting to lose staff and it's probably gonna get worse from here." 

He said the mood at work was not great - and it was only going to get worse. Refining NZ is one of Northland's biggest employers - it contributes around 6 percent of the region's whole GDP. 

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Marsden Point oil refinery. Photo: RNZ/Nikki Mandow

Those jobs are much needed - Northland already has the highest rate of people on the jobless benefit - 10.9 percent. 

While briefings to the government estimate 320 jobs are on the line at the refinery, Rob reckons it could be much higher. 

"It's going to be over 1000 if you think of the wider support group in town and the wider Northland economy." 

While the change still has to be voted on at a shareholder meeting later this year, BP and Z Energy - two of the refinery's biggest customers - are already on board. 

Refining New Zealand said work was still being done to figure out next steps and chief executive Naomi James said they were in talks with central government about ways to create jobs, or repurpose the site. 

"That could be anything from imports of other products, green energy and fuel opportunities through to the solar farm that we have been previously been looking at at our site." 

Northland Inc chief executive Murray Reade (Ngāpuhi and Ngāti Pāoa) is part of a group looking at the transition process around the refinery's scaling back - along with local councils, iwi, the unions and government agencies. 

He said work was under way to find out what other jobs were out there for refinery staff - many of whom were highly qualified in their field. 

"We need to look at how we can gainfully employ those, and that's possibly a broader discussion we need to have with central government because those skills are really important to us." 

He said Northland's economy had been performing strongly and was hopeful people wouldn't have to move away - with other industries providing possible options. 

"The horticulture agriculture industry, there's some developments going on there. If there were developments around the port ... there could be opportunities there. So those kinds of industries that potentially have a requirement for technically skilled people could be industries that could support."

But Rob said those people were already leaving  

"From the core workforce that I belong to that actually keeps the refinery running we're looking at probably an average of a resignation every three weeks. 

He could not recall a greater job loss from the region - and wanted more action to create opportunties.

"There's less on offer now than when I left school and I always ask myself, you know, 'what's changed in Whangārei and Northland since I was at school' and I scratch my head to figure it out, you know. 

"There's a few more orchards perhaps, the superyacht industry may be a little bit different, but aside from that there's no industry up here. There are no jobs to speak of apart from the health service and perhaps the state." 

In a statement, Whangarei MP Emily Henderson said the government would work with Refining NZ to ensure economic opportunities in Northland could be maximised - and the role Refining NZ could play in a transition to a net-zero economy, such as with biofuels.