(Jamaica Observer) NAIN, St Elizabeth — Chalk-white dust was in abundance, leaving its mark on socks and shoes as high-profile visitors and journalists walked the pier at Port Kaiser, a few miles south of here on Friday.
The dust was residue from 35,000 tonnes of alumina being loaded on to the Hong Kong-registered cargo ship Wuchow which will sail early this week for China. It is the first such shipment since new Chinese owners JISCO (Jiquan Iron and Steel) resumed alumina production at the 48-year-old Alpart plant in mid-year.
Alumina — processed from bauxite ore plentiful in much of central Jamaica — is a white, granular material from which the light metal aluminium, is smelted in the world’s industrialised countries. Aluminium is used in the manufacturing of an array of products ranging from food wrapping to kitchen utensils, cars, and aeroplanes.
Often referred to in industry circles as ‘white gold’, alumina has not been shipped from Port Kaiser since 2009, when Alpart was closed by previous Russian owners UC Rusal. Closure of Alpart was part of the fallout from the global financial crisis of that time which left the metals industry reeling, even as oil prices soared.
Back then, 900 workers lost their jobs at Alpart and hundreds more were cut in the months before that. The shutdown of Alpart and other alumina plants at Kirkvine, Manchester, and Ewarton, St Catherine, hit hard. It was part of the reason the Bruce Golding-led Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) Government of the day resumed a borrowing relationship with the International Monetary Fund.
On Friday, JISCO Alpart officials, Mining Minister Mike Henry, Government officials and former mining minister, now shadow spokesman Phillip Paulwell popped champagne to mark the loading of the Wuchow. It was, they said, a concretisation of a multi-billion US-dollar bauxite/alumina partnership between Jamaica and China over the next several years.
JISCO, a State-owned company in China, bought the moth-balled Alpart plant, the largest of Jamaica’s alumina-processing facilities from UC Rusal in 2016 for US$299 million. It has spent tens of millions of US dollars to bring the ageing plant to the current stage which Henry said was only 25-30 per cent of desired efficiency.
Henry told an audience including Alpart workers and residents of mining communities that China through JISCO “has decided to invest three billion dollars, one billion per year for the next three years”, on Alpart and related projects.
Planned projects scheduled to begin in 2018 include upgrade of the current alumina refinery from a 1.65-million tonne capacity to two million tonnes, as well as construction of an additional three-million tonne plant which will bring total alumina production to five million tonnes. Alpart will be powered by a 230-megawatt (MW) liquefied natural gas (LNG) power plant, replacing an ageing oil-based power system.
JISCO also has plans for an industrial park and economic zone producing aluminium foil and other light metal products for export to the Caribbean, the Americas and beyond.
To complement that expansion, Port Kaiser is to be redeveloped to accommodate ships with a carrying capacity of up to 100,000 tonnes.
Paulwell, who as mining minister in the People’s National Party (PNP) Government prior to the early 2016 General Election, kept a watchful eye on negotiations for the Alpart sale to the Chinese, said he was looking forward to the day when ships would be leaving Port Kaiser with not just alumina, but aluminium.
And Sun Jing, assistant managing director at JISCO Alpart, spoke of his company wanting “to get to producing aluminium as quickly as possible”.
Henry said that there were more than 900 workers currently at Alpart with the great majority being Jamaican. Yang Wenxu, charge d’affaires at the Chinese Embassy in Jamaica, said that “for every 100 workers employed, 96 are Jamaican”.
As envisaged by the mining minister, the construction phase of the planned new refinery and LNG power plant at Alpart “will require approximately 300 Jamaican workers of various skills in each project. Many of these workers will have job openings after construction is completed”.
The workforce on completion of phase one of the upgraded “current refinery and power plant” as well as the “new three -million-tonne refinery will be approximately 2,000, most of whom will be Jamaicans,” Henry said.
Bauxite ore, the primary material for alumina production, will come from existing and planned expanded mining areas in Essex Valley, St Elizabeth extending to the Santa Cruz Mountains, Manchester including areas previously reserved for the closed Kirkvine plant and, extending as far north as St Ann, sources say.
Member of Parliament for Manchester Southern, Michael Stewart joined other political representatives and community leaders in crediting the reopening of Alpart for an upswing in employment and community activity in the various communities.
And Zhang Zun, Managing Director JISCO Alpart, said the company was committed to the welfare of host communities. He hailed the work force for coming together to achieve the year-end deadline for the alumina shipment despite serious “challenges” and cultural differences.
But even as they spoke in glowing terms of the prospects ahead, speakers at Friday’s function cautioned that there needed to be industrial peace and common ground. Their comments came against the backdrop of reports in recent weeks of dissatisfaction, even unrest, among some workers regarding remuneration and working conditions.
Reports say the National Workers Union (NWU) and the Union of Clerical Administrative and Supervisory Employees (UCASE) led by former NWU executive Vincent Morrison have also been mobilizing with a view to gaining bargaining rights at the plant.
Henry told his audience that the JISCO Alpart project represented a partnership.
‘This means that we (government) will not be unreasonable in our demands … and the investors will be respectful of the value of our services. In doing so we will ensure that differences and concerns are dealt with openly and frankly, at the table of discussion,” he said.
At the workplace, he wanted “an industrial relations climate that will be supportive and not disruptive, while standing up for that which is right. I expect that for harmony, all ideas must contend. But I equally expect that the partnership I am proposing must embrace the tenets of fair play and justice for all the parties involved,” he said.
“I do not want to hear that the gates to the plant are blocked by protesting truckers or workers,” he said. Rather, in times of difficulty, contending parties should sit down to resolve their differences.
“That to me is taking industrial relations to another level. I want to see that change take place in the bauxite/alumina industry. Let us be the trend-setter for this change,” he said.
Similar calls for harmony came from Len Blake head of the Alpart Community Council and Frank Witter, Member of Parliament for St Elizabeth South Eastern representing the ruling JLP.
Noting that the communities around Alpart are “better off today as a lot of people are working”, Blake a former MP for St Elizabeth South Eastern representing the People’s National Party (PNP) said “we need all hands on board” to protect the (JISCO) investment — described by him as the biggest in Jamaica.
Witter implored workers, management and community to work together.
“I know there are concerns as it relates to labour relations and I want to say to the workers that we need to ensure that this investment is a success … we need all hands on deck so that we will be able to achieve desired goals…,” he said.
Witter later told the Jamaica Observer that he believed trade unions would be better off waiting until production systems are stabilised at Alpart before attempting to secure bargaining rights.
“We need to give them (Alpart) a chance to settle down before we seek to enter into anything that might cause disruption,” he said. “There should be a focus on stabilizing production and when we stabilise production then we can come to the table with the various labour relations’ issues and the securing of bargaining rights,” he said.
Witter said an absence of fringe benefits including an end-of-year bonus was a source of contention for some workers at Alpart.