By Jørn Stave
Together with the U.S. company Kaiser Aluminium, Norsk Hydro owns Alpart (Alumina Partners of Jamaica), which is the single largest bauxite and alumina enterprise in Jamaica. The mines and refinery are located outside the town of Mandeville, on the southern part of the island.
In 1998, Alpart and the other companies signed an agreement with the unions and the government, which expressed that the future survival of the industry requires co-operation between the owners, employees and the authorities.
The agreement, called "Memorandum of Understanding", was negotiated after a period of strikes and large taxes on foreign investments, eventually resulting in poor productivity. Due to low aluminium prices on the international market in the early 1980s, Alpart closed down and several hundred workers were sacked. Consequently, the government lost significant tax revenues.
- Mandeville became a ghost town over night. This represented a wake up call for the unions as well as the government, and established the basis for the co-operative atmosphere that we experience today, explains Vice President in the National Workers Union of Jamaica (NWU), Norman DaCosta.
During a visit to Jamaica in May, NorWatch met with several representatives of the workers unions at Alpart. They all agreed that the working conditions had improved in recent years and that the management is more sensitive to criticism from the employees.
- I have regular meetings with the General Manager of Alpart, Ray Gendron, and the discussions are characterised by a mutual respect and understanding, says Norman DaCosta.
NWU, which is the largest union at Alpart, is educating the workers in order to improve productivity and safety. The unions are also committed to reduce total annual employment costs in order to enhance international competitiveness.
- A strike at Alpart is almost impossible today, says DaCosta.
In addition to improving working conditions and production capacity, the agreement also emphasises the need for protecting the environment and the welfare of the local residents. This aim should be achieved by investing in new technologies and supporting local development programmes. Moreover, the government should redistribute revenues from the bauxite and alumina industry back into the communities.
The neighbours complain
However, not only companies, government and workers are stakeholders in Jamaica's bauxite and alumina industry. Thousands of people, a majority of whom are small-scale farmers, are living in the mining areas and around the refineries. These residents are forced to resettle as the industry encroaches into new territories. Many people are also affected by dust and soda emissions (see NorWatch 6/2001).
One of those affected by the Alpart alumina refinery is 70 year old Samuel Baley of Downs community.
- It is good that the company provides employment, but what about us who are the closest neighbours, asks Baley, who adds that compensations have been lacking and that the local communities are neglected.
Baley emphasises the importance of Alpart to the national economy, but that doesn't help when the surplus is not given to them.
The key mining companies in Jamaica are now identifying the creeping urbanisation into areas rich in bauxite deposits as the most significant issue faced by the industry. Construction of new houses in potential mining areas will eventually provide compensations to the new residents.
Officials in Kaiser Aluminium have therefore called for the stakeholders to arrive at an accommodation on the issue.
- The reality, however, is that so long as the industry operates in close proximity to communities, environmental issues will pose problems to the communities and the industry development, says Greg Christie of Kaiser Aluminium to The Observer.
Few weeks after this announcement, frustrated residents blocked the Alpart railway to protest against the repeated emissions from the alumina refinery.
"It is good that the company provides employment, but what about us who are the closest neighbours?"
Samuel Baley, resident of Downs community, 2.5.2001
Hydro Aluminium in Jamaica
Alpart (Alumina Partner of Jamaica) is a partnership between Hydro Aluminium (35% ownership) and the US company
Kaiser Aluminium, which is the manager and controls the remaining shares. The company mines bauxite through the recently
established AMV (Alpart Mining Venture) and produces alumina at a refinery outside the town of Mandeville. The bauxite is
transported to the plant by a 15 km conveyor belt, whereas the alumina is carried by railroad to Port Kaiser, about 11 km
south of the plant. Alpart was originally formed in 1966 and the refinery operations started in 1969. After close-down and
subsequent re-opening, Hydro acquired its current ownership in 1989. Alpart is employing ca. 1200 workers and produced
1.5 million tonnes of alumina last year, of which a significant share is shipped to Norwegian aluminium smelters.
Norwatch Newsletter 8/01