Wed | Oct 23, 2019

NAIN PAIN - Small businesses take a hit from JISCO Alpart lay-offs

Published:Monday | October 7, 2019 | 12:05 AMPaul Clarke/Gleaner Writer
A man walks towards the JISCO Alpart Jamaica bauxite plant in Nain, St Elizabeth, recently.
A man walks towards the JISCO Alpart Jamaica bauxite plant in Nain, St Elizabeth, recently.

When more than 900 Alpart employees lost their jobs because Alpart bauxite plant shut down operations in 2009, it resulted in the largest bloc redundancies from one company in Jamaica. It also burnt a hole in the pockets of residents and small entrepreneurs of Nain, St Elizabeth, who rely heavily on the patronage of the Alpart workers to make ends meet.

Then in 2017, when the gates were once again opened and thousands of workers flooded through the turnstiles at the now-renamed JISCO Alpart Bauxite Plant, it triggered fanfare in the small but bustling Nain square.

“Things were happening again. South St Elizabeth – and Nain, to be exact – was again a decent place to make a little money,” Althea* told The Gleaner.

Now faced once again with the stark reality of a downturn in business, small business operators in Nain are angry about the lay-offs and can barely contain their frustration.

Althea said that she is now staring at the possibility of finding some other venue from which to sell her home-cooked meals as the majority of the 1,000 JISCO workers have already been sent home because of the scheduled upgrade of the plant.

She said that the lay-offs, which began in July, have been having a debilitating effect on her prospects for earning an income.

“It has been really bad because first time, we used to cook and deliver the food to our many customers over the plant, but now it’s so bad [that] the ones who are still there are still taking food, but we cannot make any money, as it’s a very small amount of workers left over there,” she told The Gleaner recently.

“I used to have enough customers to make enough money every fortnight and be happy paying my bills, restocking for the following week, and taking care of my family. With all the changes here, all that has been thrown out of sync. It’s really bad now, though,” Althea added.

Major setback

One employee reasoned that while the planned upgrade was good for the company’s long-term operations, laying off so many workers could be a major setback for small businesses in the area.

The operator of a bar in the square said to be one of the more popular chill spots, just a stone’s throw away from the JISCO plant, is considering having a single bar attendant instead of the two women he currently employs on a week-on, week-off schedule.

“It really serious here, man. Dem place ya used to be very busy, especially this time a day,” he said one evening as The Gleaner stopped by. “Now, look at this: one man sipping a beer and the bartender. All the people dem from over the plant got sent home, so we not making any money again.”

Metres away sits the largest wholesale/supermarket in the town. Its operator said her business has been struggling in recent months and she is bracing for worse.

Esmie* noted that her customer base has fallen off dramatically, with only a few passers-by and some residents turning up to make purchases.

“Me not lying, it wicked! We hardly getting the kind of sale we used to get. Only a fraction, and it is costing us at the moment,” Esmie said.

Alpart, which operated under the Russian mining company UC Rusal’s brand up to three years ago, signed a deal in July 2016 to complete the US$300-million sale of its 1.6-million-tonne Alpart alumina refinery to China’s Jinquan Iron and Steel Company (JISCO), China’s fifth-largest aluminium producer.

JISCO has spent approximately US$300 million to date on rehabilitating the plant.

*Name changed on request.

paul.clarke@gleanerjm.com