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AWU Aluminium Industry Reference Group

May 5, 2020

A message from your AWU Aluminium IRG Chair, Wayne Pringle

COVID-19 has proven challenging for every sector of the Australian economy and has tested us all.

But we have pulled together and looked after one another – like we always do.

Now it’s more critical than ever to stand together as proud AWU members to ensure that our safety is protected and that our aluminium industry gets the attention it deserves. You can read about important information relating to safety at work here, but if in doubt, speak to your AWU delegate or organiser.

I encourage you to speak to colleagues and friends at work who are not yet in the union. With a global pandemic underway, the government ramping up efforts to attack conditions and supply chains affected the world over, there has never been a more important time to be a union member.

You can stay up to date or share information via our special Facebook page for Aluminium members.

Keeping Aluminium Open For Business

The AWU has been working hard to keep the manufacturing sector as a whole operating. Intense lobbying early on during the COVID-19 crisis took place at the state and federal level as there was genuine concern governments would shut down the entire aluminium industry. What became clear was that many politicians had no idea about the complexity and damage involved in closing down a smelter or refinery and had no concept of the impact this would have had on the wider economy.

This is why we joined forces with The Aluminium Council, to call for an exemption from any shutdown and for the industry to be deemed essential. Our hard work paid off and we are pretty confident that the threat of government mandated shutdown has passed.
We also worked with all the major employers to put in place health and safety regulations that will keep our members safe. Temperature checks when starting work, staggered starts and meal breaks and a sharp increase in cleaning on all sites.


Fighting for the future

As a major supplier of bauxite, Australia must continue to be an aluminium super power. Without a plan, there is a risk we will lose much of our supply chain, with smelters most at risk.

Many smelters world-wide are now stockpiling due to the COVID-19 crisis and we have witnessed a massive over-supply and a dramatic drop in the price of aluminium on the LME – the lowest we’ve seen for four years.

Thankfully wholesale electricity prices – a major factor in the competitiveness of our sector – have also dropped significantly because the COVID-19 crisis has led to a significant reduction in demand for power across the economy. Prices have also dropped because electricity prices follow the oil price which has plummeted and is likely to stay low even as COVID-19 restrictions ease over the coming months.

Low energy prices are good for our aluminium smelters but with many operating on long-term energy contracts we cannot predict if individual smelters will benefit, but the longer prices stay low, the better it will be for smelters when they come to renegotiate their power contracts.

What is clear is that delivering affordable energy prices will be key to the future success of our aluminium industry.

The COVID-19 crisis has shown that Australia cannot simply rely on supply chains from other parts of the world to deliver the things our country needs.

The government has set up a Manufacturing Taskforce to help ensure manufacturing in Australia does not endure any structural contraction as a result of COVID-19. It is also mandated to produce a blueprint for expanding Australia’s manufacturing capability so that our nation is more resilient.

Daniel Walton, the AWU National and NSW Secretary, has been appointed onto the Manufacturing Taskforce. Also representing the aluminium sector on the Taskforce is Manufacturing Australia, which counts Tomago as one of its coalition members.

Daniel will use the opportunity to lobby for affordable energy policies that support current and new heavy manufacturing industries such as smelters. We will be keeping you regularly updated with news from the taskforce.

Site news

Portland Alcoa has survived the latest round of closures by Alcoa, but the global giant has warned its business has been badly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Alcoa says it will speed up a review of is loss-making operations, which include Portland. The company had previously committed to keeping Portland open until mid 2021, when its existing power supply agreement expires.

No mention has been made of when Alcoa may make a decision on Portland’s future, meaning that having a national affordable energy policy in place has now gained even more urgency.

In other news from Portland, Alcoa’s plans to stop issuing PPE has raised serious safety concerns. Union officials are seeking urgent answer from management about a replacement to the discontinued 3M helmet. You can read more here.

COVID-19 safety issues have also led to more staff working from home, staggered shifts and extra cleaning. Contingency measures have been put in place in case of an outbreak including planning for production to continue at just half of regular manning levels. This has been done by providing training to contracting groups for low-risk tasks but we are mindful this temporary measure does not give the company an excuse to replace permanent staff with contractors during the next EA negotiations.

It’s business as usual at Tomago, apart from all the social distancing rules. Extra staff have been employed for cleaning and weekly COVID-19 meetings are taking place with the CEO and the HR manager where updates are provided. Any staff member or their partner that has been tested for COVID-19 has been able to access paid instead of having to use their own personal leave. The good news is that everyone has tested negative so far.

As elsewhere, safety is the main concern at Queensland Alumina Ltd. Anyone who comes back from leave has to fill out a questionnaire and visit the medical centre. Only one person is allowed per vehicle and some contractors have been restricted from entering the buildings.

The whole G James Brisbane site was closed for 24 hours for a deep clean, followed with a major hygiene drive. People are being reminded to stand 2 metres apart and COVID-19 updates are being posted on the intranet regularly. There were early concerns relating to company attempts to not pay members stood down on quarantine leave, but this has been largely resolved. Negotiations for a new EA will start soon and we will provide updates as they occur.

 Members at Alcoa Western Australia are exercising social distancing restrictions, there are extra cleaners and there has been a relaxation of start and finish times. When members have finished for the day they can leave without waiting for official clock off, thereby minimising the number of people congregating at the gates at the end of the shift.

Stronger Together

Remember, the Aluminium IRG is here to represent you and to fight for our industry.

Please let us know if there are issues you need raised or important matters that you would like to know more about. We will report on other sites and industry news as it comes to hand, so please make sure you are letting us know what’s going on.

You can stay up to date or share information via our special Facebook page for Aluminium members.

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