Today marks a dark day for the city and its long and proud
It is the last day for Hillside staff, who will hold what
will undoubtedly be an emotional ceremony at 11am outside the
main gates of the now-defunct South Dunedin workshops.
At the same time, more than 4000 rail and port workers
throughout New Zealand will down tools for two minutes in
support of the redundant workers. The public are invited to
attend the Dunedin ceremony and lay flowers alongside wreaths
to be laid to honour Hillside's war dead as the facility
sounds its own death knell.
Thirty-five workers will walk out of the gates for the last
time today. Thirty staff left on December 7 and another 20
will be made redundant as soon as they have completed work to
shut down everything but Hillside's foundry and heavy lift
capacity. KiwiRail will retain for the moment seven staff for
the heavy lift. Heavy engineering company Bradken,
headquartered in Australia but with workshops in Dunedin, has
leased the foundry for at least five years and employed 21
former Hillside workers.
The departure of the final workers brings to an end 130 years
of full operation at the facility, whose staff numbers peaked
at more than 1200 during the golden age of rail in the first
half of last century. Staff numbers, orders and investment
have declined through the decades as roading infrastructure
has taken precedence, and the facility's death warrant was
effectively signed last year, with KiwiRail's announcement
dozens of industry jobs, including at Hillside, would be lost
on the back of multimillion-dollar contracts going to Chinese
companies for new rail rolling stock.
The news the first batch of the cheaper stock proved to have
extensive mechanical problems and the second batch was put on
hold awaiting design modifications was bittersweet,
particularly as the deal remained in place. In April this
year the state-owned company confirmed it would sell Hillside
as the financial impact of the reduction in construction and
refurbishment forward work orders meant there was no longer
enough work to make the facility viable. It was hoped then
the facility could be sold as a going concern, but that
proved not be the case.
Dunedin South Labour MP Clare Curran has been Hillside's
recent champion and should be commended for her relentless
fight to retain the facility and its skilled workers.
Likewise, Bradken should be praised for committing to the
foundry lease and employing some Hillside workers.
Many will wonder whether KiwiRail and the Government really
had any choice. KiwiRail is a business, must make a profit,
and - particularly in tough economic times - must make
necessary cost savings where required in order to survive.
Last month, National list MP Michael Woodhouse, of Dunedin,
said wagons built at Hillside were about 40% more expensive
than their outsourced equivalents and although there was no
''candy-coating'' the disappointing news, it was tempered by
relief the foundry had been leased. But there is no doubt the
price - arguably of quality and potential safety and
certainly of workers' jobs and a city's skills - has proved
high indeed. And there are many who believe the tradeoff has
not been worth it.
There can be no-one in the city who does not feel for the
workers, who have paid the ultimate price for cheaper wages
and materials with their livelihoods and now go into the
festive season unemployed.
And there can be no-one who does not also fear for the
long-term future of the manufacturing sector with the loss of
such skilled labour to the city as workers inevitably seek
employment elsewhere to support their families - like Fisher
and Paykel staff and other casualties before and after them.
For the moment, the city can only join in commiserating with
the workers and their families and holding on to the same
thought expressed this week by Rail and Maritime Transport
Union Hillside branch secretary Les Ingram: ''We live in hope
Hillside will rise again.''