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Essity’s paper mill in Kawerau (Photo: Stewart Sowman-Lund, additional design: Archi Banal)
Essity’s paper mill in Kawerau (Photo: Stewart Sowman-Lund, additional design: Archi Banal)

BusinessSeptember 8, 2022

On the ground in the paperless town

Essity’s paper mill in Kawerau (Photo: Stewart Sowman-Lund, additional design: Archi Banal)
Essity’s paper mill in Kawerau (Photo: Stewart Sowman-Lund, additional design: Archi Banal)

Almost a month since 145 paper mill workers in Kawerau were locked out by the factory’s operator, Stewart Sowman-Lund visits the Bay of Plenty community.

The Essity paper mill in Kawerau is dormant. Smoke still billows from the factory, but not a single worker is seen. The carpark is largely empty. It’s silent, too – noteworthy because factories of this size are typically loud.

It’s been nearly a week since negotiations began between the union representing Kawerau paper mill workers and their employer Essity. The goal? To try and reach a fair pay agreement. Union members actually making it around the negotiating table is a positive step as it comes on the heels of an almost month-long lockout impacting 145 workers at the mill, which then culminated in a legal threat from Essity to its own staff.

Parked up in a nearby carpark in what could be described as the “industrial” part of town, I observed just a couple of cars coming and going from the Essity factory. Signs directing visitors to a reception area led me instead to a locked gate with a red light. The factory will remain closed until negotiations reach their conclusion.

In contrast, neighbouring businesses on Fletcher Avenue appeared as busy as you’d expect for a Tuesday morning.

Essity’s Kawerau factory (Photo: Stewart Sowman-Lund)

A spokesperson for the Pulp and Paper Union in Kawerau confirmed to The Spinoff that negotiations, which started last Thursday and were hoped to wrap up before the weekend, had continued this week. There’s been no update since, despite requests for comment, and facilitation could feasibly end at any moment – with either a continuation of the stalemate or a positive resolution for the workers.

Essity is one of the world’s biggest health companies. In the first six months of this year alone, it racked up $330 million in profit. It produces familiar brands on New Zealand shelves like Purex and Sorbent. The strike action has led to the threat of a shortage of some Essity-manufactured products, though Kawerau’s New World was displaying a freshly packed shelf of Purex toilet paper on Tuesday.

Across the road from Essity’s factory is a small building housing the First Credit Union. A staff member there said that he had been through a 19-week lockout at another of Kawerau’s paper production plants. He sympathised with what Essity workers were experiencing. “It’s hard,” he said. “It’s hard on both the workers and the company, I hope things work out for both.”

During his time shut out from work, he relied on the support of his family to survive. “I was one of the lucky ones,” he said, explaining that his father took in seven children to help those who could not work. “A lot of workers have too much pride” – he lifts his hand up to his chest – “their pride is up to here.”

Kawerau’s main street (Photo: Stewart Sowman-Lund)

The impact of the Essity lockout is felt far and wide across Kawerau; many of the town’s residents are employed by the mill or almost certainly know someone who is. At the local New World, a shopper, who had just passed by a well-stocked shelf of Essity-manufactured products, told me that she had friends who worked at the mill. “It’s sad,” she said, lifting off her sunglasses. “I think they’ve had to seek emergency housing.”

Down a nearby street, at Maggie’s Op Shop, a volunteer put it succinctly: “I don’t like what’s going on.” Her colleague added: “It just adds to everything else that’s happening at the moment,” a comment made after a brief discussion of the homelessness crisis in nearby Rotorua.

Essity’s Kawerau general manager Peter Hockley told Stuff last week that “progress” had been made in the early days of negotiation and that the company was committed to a fair settlement that would support the future of the factory. Since then, few updates have been provided to media as discussions continue behind closed doors.

One positive, however, came from the Council of Trade Unions. Its president Richard Wagstaff said a fundraising drive for shut-out Essity workers had raised over $50,000 in donations. “The assistance given to Kawerau workers clearly shows that New Zealanders condemn the intimidatory tactics of Essity,” he said.

Locals are hopeful that negotiations will wrap this week – and it’s quite possible they will. But for now, the waiting continues. The mill remains closed, quiet and empty.

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