HUNDREDS of workers at Rio Tinto Alcan’s Lynemouth smelter now have less than three months left before they have to face up to life on the dole after their bosses announced this week that the plant will shut at the end of May.
Tuesday’s announcement of a closure date for the aluminium plant, opened 40 years ago, is the last nail in the coffin for the biggest private-sector employer in the county.
The smelter employs 515 staff but a further 2,500 workers in its supply chain are estimated to be reliant on it for their livelihoods.
The multinational company is closing the site as it says it would no longer be viable after new carbon emission taxes are introduced next year.
Those taxes, it says, will see the plant’s energy bills leap from £7m per year to an estimated £100m, more than wiping out its profits.
Following a lengthy consultation period with staff and unions, during which no buyer for the site was found, 323 employees will be made redundant in May.
Some operational activity in the smelter’s carbon and casting plants will continue until the end of the year, and around 60 staff will remain after all operations cease to work on the decommissioning of the site.
The General Municipal Boilermakers’ (GMB) union says it will continue to push to find a buyer throughout the staff’s 12-week notice period.
Its regional organiser, Keir Howe, said: “After a difficult consultation process, no long-terms plans have emerged to save jobs at Alcan.
“Hundreds of GMB members will be faced with losing their jobs by the end of May and, with the economy in its present state, our members are worried there won’t be enough jobs out there for them all. The loss of the smelter will be devastating for our members, their local communities and the region as a whole, and it is time the government stepped in to assist in saving this site.
“This is the largest private-sector employer in Northumberland and will be the first of many companies in the energy-intensive industries that may be lost if the government does not act.”
Bill Armstrong, a worker in the smelter’s casting plant for the last 12 years, said: “It was anticipated. We knew it was coming after the three-month consultation, but when you hear the final news it becomes quite devastating.
“I’m going to find it very, very difficult to get another job at the age of 61. The job market is not easy for anyone, I think, but it’s very, very difficult for people in my age group.
“It’s possibly the worst news that we could ever have. It was the largest employer we had. When we lost the pits, we always had Alcan. Now we don’t have the pits, and we don’t have Alcan.”
Mr Armstrong, of Ashington, added: “Recently, we were sent down to Anglesey, where they two years ago closed another plant and we had a look around Holyhead, the large town near there, and it was like a ghost town.
“Nothing tells me that unless we do something in the north east, that’s not going to happen to Ashington. It probably will. That makes me feel very sad.”
Paul Scott, 42, a pot room repair man and also a convener for the GMB, agreed that the news did not come as any surprise.
His son Lewis, 18, is one of seven apprentices on the site, but he said that he understands they will be placed with other employers.
Paul, of North Seaton, also with the company for 12 years, said: “We are busy ensuring that people receive the correct training and the correct support.
“Redundancy talks are finished now. We have to make sure those in the final 200 also receive the correct support.
“People will be getting their notice letters on Friday. Everybody will be made fully aware then.”
Rio Tinto Alcan chief executive Jacynthe Côté said: “I am saddened by the closure of Lynemouth smelter, but we have reached this decision only after a thorough strategic review of the plant and a fair and transparent consultation process.
“I have met with Lynemouth unions and staff members, and I have great respect for the manner in which they have represented their colleagues during consultation.
“We will now focus on safely decommissioning the plant, working with our employees to mitigate the impact of redundancy on them and their families and partnering with all interested stakeholders on the future regional economic development of the Lynemouth site.
“We are in close contact with our customers to limit the impact on their businesses under the scope of our contractual agreements.”
On the closure of smelting operations, Rio Tinto Alcan has said it will begin a programme of working alongside other agencies on long-term regeneration and job creation opportunities on the site.
It will also consider credible expressions of third-party interest in the carbon and casting plants.
Talks on the sale of Lynemouth power station are ongoing and cannot be concluded until the regulations for its operation independent of the smelter are confirmed by the government in the next few months.