Wed | Oct 23, 2019

Alpart anger - Workers cry foul, union points finger at local managers for ills

Published:Tuesday | September 17, 2019 | 12:15 AMPaul Clarke/Gleaner Writer
The JISCO Alpart bauxite plant in Nain, St Elizabeth.
The JISCO Alpart bauxite plant in Nain, St Elizabeth.

One of three unions representing the approximately 1,000 employees at the JISCO-Alpart bauxite plant at Nain in St Elizabeth has charged that many of the ills being faced by local workers there is as a direct result of the lack of input from their Jamaican managers.

Hundreds of workers have been made redundant from as early as June, as the company began scaling back some of its operations to meet demands for its second phase of modernisation and expansion plan.

Kavan Gayle, who heads the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (BITU), asserts that local managers at the company must take responsibility for the breakdown in talks between local workers and their Chinese employers.

Meanwhile, disgruntled workers have accused management of union busting, a charge that Gayle said he was unable to verify.

“Union busting is a very serious accusation ... . If we accuse anyone of union busting – that matter is a criminal offence – we would have to be satisfied that there is sufficient evidence to make that determination,” Gayle told The Gleaner.

“We are not ruling out anything, but here is a situation where workers are of the view that they are exposed. It is a fact that it’s an old plant with old machinery that needs to be restored. It is also a fact that it cannot continue in this climate to be competitive, where the cost for alumina on the world market is below US$300 per tonne, while the cost for operating at JISCO is almost US$500. That is unsustainable,” he added.

Gayle reasoned that employees can only claim union busting if employers demonstrate efforts to thwart engagement in representing the workers.

“We are not seeing that, but what we are seeing is a situation where the owners are not accustomed to our practices and laws, and they are not being properly advised and instructed by the local management, who are there to do so. That is where we are having the difficulty,” he said.

Along with the BITU, unionised workers at JISCO are also represented by the National Workers’ Union and Union of Clerical, Administrative and Supervisory Employees.

‘Ridiculous’ contracts

Further, the workers are charging that Alpart’s management has wilfully offered “ridiculous” contracts as a means of “frustrating” them into not accepting and, therefore, leaving the job.

The result would then be, according to them, the surest way to bring in Chinese workers to fill those slots, which would otherwise be the domain of the locals.

“This is exactly how they are trying to get us out. So when it’s done, nobody can say it is illegal, but while it may not be illegal, I feel that it is very unethical and we are being used this way, which is not beneficial to our well-being,” one of the workers told The Gleaner.

Bewildered welders showed our news team copies of their payslips that carry their job title as caretakers, which they say sometimes causes them embarrassment.

“They even call some of the employees area support, but that can’t go anywhere, because who’s an area support worker? Sadly, they have not yet addressed that specific concern and this is part of the challenge also in that the local management is not addressing the issue. It’s a failure largely on their part,” he said.

The upgrade of the Alpart plant will result in a significantly increased production capacity with tonnage likely to be increased from 1.65 million per year to two million tonnes per year.

The Gleaner was unable to get a response from the Alpart management.

JISCO-Alpart, which reopened in 2016 under management by the Chinese firm Jiquan Iron and Steel (Group) Company, was closed for eight years, triggered by the 2008 global recession. It was owned then by UC Rusal.

The workers opined that they benefited more when the company was in the hands of its previous owners.

“It was better they stayed closed and never reopened. These Chinese don’t know how to deal with us. It was way better when the Russians and the Americans run the place, because we got everything – gain share, windfall, all different kinds of benefits.

“Now, is pure trouble. Firstly, everybody on contract, and that also help to mash up our family life, too. Right now, me a get $5,500 a day, and when they take out fi dem ting, a joke money we left wid,” said one employee, who wished to remain anonymous.

paul.clarke@gleanerjm.com