Marsden Pt workers feel abandoned by govt as job cuts loom

From Checkpoint, 7:26 pm on 4 August 2021

Frustrated workers at Marsden Point feel abandoned by the government ahead of a vote over whether to cut hundreds of jobs.

Marsden Pt workers feel abandoned by govt as job cuts loom.

Marsden Pt workers feel abandoned by govt as job cuts loom. Photo: RNZ / Nita Blake-Persen

A Refining NZ shareholder vote on Friday will determine if 300 jobs will be slashed to just 60 to manage an import only terminal.

But hundreds of other jobs - contractors and local businesses - would also likely be lost.

Today workers gathered for a union meeting to discuss their future and many described their disappointment and frustration at the way the potential shutdown had been handled by Refining NZ - and the government.

Shane Hool has worked at the refinery for 32 years but said the coming months may be his last if the close down, proposed for the second quarter of next year, goes ahead.

But he said there were concerns the refinery might not even make it that far, with staff leaving in droves.

"The skillset they're going to need to keep the terniak and the pipeline going, I'm not sure if people are going to hang around with the way things are, with the way people are feeling they've been treated.

Plenty of people are looking elsewhere - with many eyeing up work across the Tasman.

One worker, who did not want to be identified, said it was incredibly hard to find well-paid local work.

"There aren't any options in Whangārei - we've got the highest unemployment rates in New Zealand and that's the reality."

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Photo: RNZ/Nikki Mandow

Shutting the refinery without a plan for workers or the site was madness - and far from the 'Just Transition' the government promised, he said.

"They managed to subsidise Tiwai Point to keep it alive which is not a national security asset, it doesn't provide anything for this country, it supports a multinational mining company."

That was in contrast to the refinery, which he said didn't seem to be important to the government, and may become a problem for them.

"Labour won the seat of Whangārei and the seat of Northland for probably the first time in my memory... they will never win it again if this refinery closes."

Refinery operator Greg Ventnor said he had seen the same problems play out in Australia where the government is subsidising its refineries to keep them open.

It was vital we do the same here to ensure fuel security, he said.

"There only has to be a little diplomatic spat, or some sort of global conflict and we're completely dependent on Asia and the first thing they'll do is either shut that down in the event of a conflict or in the event of a diplomatic spat, they will use that supply to blackmail the country."

Housing Minister Megan Woods said the government is also expanding the rules so that more people will only need a 5 percent deposit before first home buyers can apply for support.

Energy Minister Megan Woods says the government is talking with staff and stakeholders about future options for the site Photo: RNZ/Samuel Rillstone

First Union transport secretary Jared Abbott agreed fuel security was a huge issue. The government needed to step up and bring in a fuel levy to subsidise keeping the refinery open, he said.

"From a government perspective it makes no sense to shut the place down - and that's not even looking at the fuel security side, once you factor in the fuel security side and the economic impact of any disruption then it's a no brainer.

"You need to have these types of strategic assets protected."

First Union is part of the Northland Recovery Working Group, with representatives from central and local government, local businesses and Whangārei mayor Sheryl Mai.

She said different uses for the refinery site were being considered, but they were not going to come before April next year.

"This is our Tiwai Point, this is our Taranaki... and we do definitely look to central government for their support. So the question needs to be posed to them; what are their plans, how can they help - and they're certainly around the table for those discussions."

In a statement, Energy Minister Megan Woods said the government recognised it was an unsettling time for workers and it was talking with stakeholders and staff about future options for the site.

She was interested in the possibility of Refining NZ helping with the transition to a net zero emissions economy, such as potential biofuels production.

But Woods said the switch to import only would not affect fuel security because New Zealand could source fuels from multiple refineries in multiple locations.