Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Union representative says a number of businesses have expressed interest in buying out the Newcastle steelworks; New South Wales Labor backbencher says a senior BHP official has advised him of an impending sell-off of a section of BHP

PETER CAVE: Let's go to the factory floor at BHP Steel in Newcastle.

GEOFF PAYNE: This is a campaign for jobs-not just our jobs, but again, it will be a campaign for all jobs. And that's the sentiment which really has to start from here. If you don't try and fight hard to defend your jobs, well, you know in advance you're going to lose automatically.

PETER CAVE: Geoff Payne, a BHP worker at Newcastle, a site that will close in 1999 with a loss of thousands of jobs. Mr Payne's sentiments come a day after the Federal Budget was widely condemned for its lack of action on the jobs front.

BHP steelworkers have now begun their industrial campaign against the Big Australian, angry at moves to close down most of Australia's steel manufacturing industry. Workers in New South Wales and Victoria are on strike for 24 hours, their counterparts in Whyalla in South Australia deferring their action until next week.

Joining us this morning is Secretary of the Labor Council of New South Wales. Peter Sams, what's the minimum you believe can be achieved with this current industrial action?

PETER SAMS: Well, I think what we're doing, Peter, is highlighting what is a very significant issue for Australian manufacturing and for the Australian steel industry. Our view is that without a steel-making capacity in this country, we not only see those jobs being lost to cheap overseas countries, but also, we place in jeopardy our future defence strategic arrangements because of the lack of the steel industry that will be made available here.

PETER CAVE: Do you believe, though, that BHP can be persuaded to relent on its decision?

PETER SAMS: Well, at this stage, you would say that that's not likely, but what we are hopeful for is that continuing political and community pressure and industrial pressure will convince them that their decision is short-sighted. It's not about looking after an Australian steel industry and it's certainly not repaying, in any way, the sorts of efforts that the steelworkers throughout Australia have made to the company's productivity and performance over the last 15 years under the steel industry plan.

PETER CAVE: So what's the alternative? You must be aware of this talk of setting up a consortium to buy out BHP?

PETER SAMS: Well, we've had approaches and, indeed, made approaches to a number of major players that may be interested-and I can't say who they are at this stage; that would compromise the discussions-but there is some possibility that a consortium of major Australian players would want to engage themselves in a buy-out of the company's operations in Newcastle.

PETER CAVE: You're talking of serious interests here, are you?

PETER SAMS: Oh, absolutely, and I'm talking big Australian companies.

PETER CAVE: So how would it work?

PETER SAMS: Well, it would work like any other buy-out of an operation. A number of companies would inject capital into the project, as would a commitment from the unions to an industrial arrangement that would move on into the future. And it may also involve some employee share ownership in some future arrangement.

PETER CAVE: Are you talking just about Newcastle, or are you talking about the whole of BHP steel interests across Australia?

PETER SAMS: Well, at the moment, it would only apply, as we see it, to Newcastle, but there's no reason where, in respect to other operations-for example, the Sydney Wire Mill is also closing but it's being transferred to Newcastle-there's no reason why we couldn't apply the same principle elsewhere, and particularly in regions that are hard-hit by unemployment as Newcastle is.

PETER CAVE: The history is littered with the ruins of rescue plans like this. Why is this one a goer? Why can someone else make the steel-making operation a going proposition when a big company with the expertise of BHP can't do it?

PETER SAMS: Well, we're not actually convinced, Peter, that the financial position the company finds itself in, in Newcastle, is in fact a true one. We are commissioning our own independent financial assessment. For example, one of the operations in Newcastle which is making a profit is actually credited to Port Kembla. It's all negotiated in Newcastle, it's all about Newcastle workers, but the profit-making location in Newcastle is put on the bottom line for Port Kembla. Now, that's an absurd position to be in, and just shows that by clever manipulation of financial arrangements that the company has been able to convince people that it's in dire problems in Newcastle. It may not be the case.

PETER CAVE: You've mentioned Port Kembla. In a moment, we're going to hear claims from a State Labor backbencher that more jobs are to go in Port Kembla. What do you know about that?

PETER SAMS: Well, I've only understood what's been said by Tony Stewart about that, but it would not surprise me, and the company has said that none of its operations are immune from immediate consideration as to their future.

PETER CAVE: Peter Sams, the Secretary of the New South Wales Labor Council. And thanks for joining us.

Among those supporting today's strike action will be 8,000 steelworkers from the Illawarra, south of Sydney. They may soon be looking after their own jobs, as we've just heard, following claims this morning that another 300 BHP workers could face the axe at the company's Port Kembla plant on the New South Wales south coast. The claims have been made by State Labor backbencher, Tony Stewart, who says a senior BHP executive has told him that plans are currently under way to sell off BHP's Packaging and Products Division, otherwise known as the Tin Mill, to a British steel company.

Sandra Fabbretti spoke to Mr Stewart about his claim of another 300lost jobs.

TONY STEWART: Over the weekend, I had a secret meeting with a senior management person from BHP corporate headquarters who indicated to me that there was currently negotiations taking place in their final stages on the prospect of selling the BHP Packaging Products Division to British Steel. I was advised that, at the meeting, from BHP. were Chief Executive, John Prescott, and also Chief Executive Officer, Ron McNeilly, and also Singapore-based marketing executive, Dr Philip Madonna (?).

I was further advised that there'd been a meeting involving the General Manager of the BHP Port Kembla works in Japan a week earlier, also discussing similar negotiations. BHP Packaging Products at Port Kembla, I'm told employees, approximately 600 people, and is a 24-hour work operation. On the advice I've received, a deal is now in its last stages of finalisation for the complete sale of the Packing Products Division to British Steel.

SANDRA FABBRETTI: And how certain are you that this will go ahead?

TONY STEWART: Well, I was told by the management person that I met with that this was fairly conclusive, and that their negotiations had almost been finalised.

SANDRA FABBRETTI: Can you say when BHP is likely to make an announcement on this?

TONY STEWART: Well, I would suspect that BHP will now do some back-tracking in regard to this issue because it's of such a sensitive nature. However, I would also suggest that investigations would demonstrate that there have been discussions-on the information conveyed to me-with the parties from British Steel involving this issue.

SANDRA FABBRETTI: So your main claim is that if British Steel takes over the Packaging and Products Division of BHP at Port Kembla, how many jobs will go?

TONY STEWART: Well, what I said in the Parliament was that Packaging Products is an area which, if British Steel got hold of it, would, I was informed, result in massive downsizing of the division's workforce and most likely the de-unionisation of the work site as well. I was also further advised that downsizing could mean a loss of up to 300 jobs at the Port Kembla works.

SANDRA FABBRETTI: So that would be 300 additional jobs to the ones already under threat in the Newcastle area at the BHP steelworks there?

TONY STEWART: That's the advice I received.

PETER CAVE: New South Wales Labor backbencher, Tony Stewart.

A.M. has contacted BHP which says it's not aware of any plans by British Steel to take over its Packaging and Products Division at Port Kembla.