Hillside family's dream shattered

Port Chalmers residents Stuart and Claudine Johnstone, with their daughters Lucy (2) and Imogen (18 weeks), have both lost their jobs and are reluctantly considering a move to Australia. Photo by Linda Robertson.
Port Chalmers residents Stuart and Claudine Johnstone, with their daughters Lucy (2) and Imogen (18 weeks), have both lost their jobs and are reluctantly considering a move to Australia. Photo by Linda Robertson.

Stuart and Claudine Johnstone's dream of raising their children in Dunedin has been shattered by the partial closure of Hillside Engineering Workshops by KiwiRail, Mr Johnstone's employer.

The fabrication worker learned last week he would be made redundant, along with 89 other Hillside staff.

He expected to finish work on December 7, when his search for alternative employment would begin in earnest.

KiwiRail's announcement after six months of sale negotiations came at a difficult time for the family.

About two months ago Mrs Johnstone, an early childhood teacher, lost her job when her place of employment was closed.

It meant both parents would be unemployed at Christmas, with young mouths to feed.

Mr Johnstone said he had considered other KiwiRail positions outside of Dunedin, but the state-owned enterprise could not offer job security because the Government was cutting its investment in the rail network.

He said KiwiRail workers throughout New Zealand were worried, and for good reason.

"No matter where you go, the message from KiwiRail workers is the same. Other countries are bringing work home to support workers, while the New Zealand Government is selling jobs overseas."

Mr Johnstone became involved in the Rail and Maritime Transport Union when he started at Hillside in 2004 and is now the branch chairman.

He and his wife moved to Port Chalmers from the Hunter Valley in New South Wales to be closer to Mrs Johnstone's family in Dunedin.

A tradesman in the coal mining-support industry previously, Mr Johnstone said Hillside was a great place to work.

The employees looked out for one another.

"It really is a big family environment."

He liked the idea of working for a nationalised rail company and had looked forward to a career, not just a job, with KiwiRail.

At the time of their arrival, employment and living opportunities were better in New Zealand than in Australia, but in the past three years those fortunes had been reversed, Mr Johnstone said.

The strength of Hillside workers had been proved in their ability to keep calm while their livelihoods hung in the balance, he said.

"Through 211 days of absolute torture for some, there were times when tensions rose and I think it speaks volumes of the quality of the workforce that we didn't have any blow-ups in that time. People were stressed, people were on edge, but overall people stuck together."

A sting in the tail was the fact Hillside could have taken on more work, if only the Government had let it, Mr Johnstone said.

"It's one thing when a place shuts down because there's no work, but there is actually loads of work for railway workers in New Zealand. More wagons are being built overseas for New Zealand that we could and should be building at Hillside. It's sad."

Despite their predicament, Mr and Mrs Johnstone were grateful for what they had, having seen many others face redundancy.

Mr Johnstone said he would be paid until the end of January and given a redundancy package.

Regardless, their Port Chalmers home would likely be empty within two months as the family sought a living elsewhere.

rosie.manins@odt.co.nz

 

 

 

Half truths

There are a couple of reasons why Kiwirail is buying its heavy stock elsewhere: quality and reliability. Apart from the problems with Chinese rolling stock (there's a reason why multinationals like Siemens have staff permanently monitoring outsourced production lines in China), workers offshore can produce more efficiently and reliably than in NZ. We should be asking why it's more economically viable for a NZ firm to ship stuff in from thousands of miles away rather than having it made on its doorstep. The reason is simple. Hillside workers are inflexible and the technology is old. The Rail and Maritime Transport Union has to take much of the blame for the failure of the workshops. Noone else. 

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