Temporary lifeline for Heyfield Mill
Fight continues for better log quota and retention of jobs
A1200-strong community meeting at Heyfield has sent a clear and unequivocal message to the Victorian Government that Australian Sustainable Hardwoods' Heyfield Mill needs to stay open.
The Heyfield Mill is a massive employer in the area and if it closes the economic impact on the area would threaten the viability of the town and the community.
“Council is relieved that there are now discussions occurring between the government and the owners of the mill in terms of trying to find a way forward. However, we understand that, as yet, the Government hasn’t confirmed that they will find the timber supply needed to ensure the mill doesn’t close, nor have they committed to assisting ASH transition to plantation timber as a long-term solution," said Wellington Shire Council Mayor Carolyn Crossley.
Under the current deal with State-owned logging company VicForests, the mill receives about 150,000 cubic metres of native regrowth timber each year; over the next three years it was only being offered between 60,000 and 80,000 cubic metres of timber, which would make the business unviable.
“The owners of the mill have confirmed they will hold off on closure for four weeks to give the Government time to try and find a solution. Stopping the closure of the Mill is a matter for the Government and Agriculture Minster Jaala Pulford, but we are urging them to work in a constructive and positive manner so that the future of the mill can be secured.
"Now that ASH has met with the Minister, Council is also seeking a meeting with her, as well as the Premier, so they are very, very clear what is at stake,” the Mayor said.
Agriculture Minister Pulford could not attend the meeting but said "all parties are committed to working in good faith".
However, Mayor Crossley was adamant that the fight to keep the workers at Heyfield Mill in a job was far from over.
The temporary reprieve was good news for the 250 staff who had been given a September work deadline unless a workable new log contract could be achieved.
Virtual eleventh-hour talks on 30 January resulted in the following Ministerial statement:
"The Government has met with workers, their union the CFMEU, and Directors from Australian Sustainable Hardwoods and will work together on options for the future of the timber mill in Heyfield.
"While this work continues over the next four weeks, Australian
Sustainable Hardwoods has committed to suspend steps to close the Heyfield mill.
"The meeting was constructive and focussed on the need to identify viable arrangements for the mill which protect local jobs, given reduced timber availability.
"All parties have committed to work together in good faith and with the necessary urgency throughout February."
In mid-January Heyfield Mill staff had been told that as a result of the failure of the Victorian Government to offer a volume of timber that would enable the mill to continue to operate, the mill would be closing. Significant lay-offs would begin from September.
“The only thing that will change this trajectory is if there is a new supply agreement offered by the government that is respectful of our business needs," ASH CEO Vince Hurley said.
The official VicForests' stance was that the current ASH agreement could not be continued.
"VicForests’ current contract with Australian Sustainable Hardwoods (ASH) expires at the end of June 2017," said Nathan Trushell, acting CEO of VicForests..
"VicForests has notified ASH that it can continue to supply timber to the Heyfield mill but not at the same levels as in the current agreement.
"Improved modelling of the available future timber resources shows the level of supply of ash timber needs to be reduced from the current levels. We are currently in discussions with ASH regarding a future sales agreement.
"Any future sales agreement offered to ASH will be based on lower supply levels to ensure this aligns with available timber resources.
"VicForests will continue to meet its contractual obligations with all of our contractors and customers," Mr Trushell said.
It's not just the Heyfield area that would be decimated by the closure of the mill but it has been estimated there are 7,000 downstream jobs that would be impacted by ASH’s closure, mostly small companies in Melbourne that use ASH’s products, together with all the suppliers of services and those in the timber industry itself.
Well over 1000 people attended the community meeting at Heyfield ... so many, in fact, that there was an overspill to the outside of the hall where hundreds more watched and listened to proceedings via television.