Kawerau: Essity toilet paper factory workers speak out on accepting pay deal and returning to work

Shop stewards and workers from the Essity Kawerau factory Simon Goddard, Suzy Kotuhi and Rik Tauroa. Photo / Mead Norton

Factory workers locked out for nearly six weeks say they can now ‘move on’ and return to their jobs after voting unanimously to accept their employer’s pay deal.

The nearly six-week lockdown at manufacturer Purex Essity’s Kawerau plant will end on Monday.

Members of the Pulp and Paper Workers Union voted yesterday to accept a revised offer from the company.

The 145 workers were locked out without pay on August 9 after a stalemate over a pay deal to deal with the rising cost of living.

On Tuesday, after several days of facilitated negotiations between the company and the Pulp and Paper Workers Union, Essity made a revised offer that matched a recommendation from the Employment Relations Authority.

Both sides said the three-year deal includes a 5% raise and $4,000 lump sum in 2022, a 4.5% raise and $3,000 lump sum in 2023 and a $4,000 lump sum raise in 2023. 4% in 2024.

The union said in a statement that the deal would keep workers’ incomes ahead of expected inflation.

Union secretary Tane Phillips said in the statement that workers were relieved to have secured a fair deal and that the lockout was over.

In his view: “Essity locked our members out for nearly six weeks without pay to try to starve them…and when that wasn’t enough, they targeted individual workers with over half a million dollars of legal threats.”

The company said it has withdrawn the lawsuit.

In Phillips’ opinion: “Our members refused to be intimidated and resisted to the bitter end.”

He said workers have been overwhelmed with support and donations from the Kawerau community and people across New Zealand.

“I would also like to thank the Council of Trade Unions for their support throughout this dispute, as well as the Swedish trade unions and the global trade union organization IndustriALL for lobbying Essity’s head office in Stockholm.

“This is a big improvement over the company’s initial offer, which would have seen our members’ compensation decline in real terms. We have achieved what we had planned, which was that the compensation of our members keep up with inflation.”

Workers were due to return to work on Monday, but not before holding a celebration for all union members and supporters.

“We will then hold a karakia at the gates on Monday morning before returning to work with our heads held high.”

Simon Goddard has worked at the plant for 22 years.  Photo / Mead Norton
Simon Goddard has worked at the plant for 22 years. Photo / Mead Norton

Shop steward Simon Goddard, who has worked at the plant for 22 years, told NZME it was a “relief” for everyone to finally get back to work and get an offer “that allows us to keep up inflation and the cost of living.

“We have worked hard to find a solution over the past six weeks.

“It’s going to take time to rebuild all the bridges between us and the company, but we have to do it – it’s our livelihood and we all have to move forward.”

Goddard said there were three different contracts among the 145 employees.

“It really brought us closer – we fought together, we stood together and we
the result we wanted.”

Suzy Kotuhi said she was looking forward to getting back to work.  Photo / Mead Norton
Suzy Kotuhi said she was looking forward to getting back to work. Photo / Mead Norton

Suzy Kotuhi, who has worked at the plant for 18 years and is also a shop steward, said it was a unanimous vote to accept the offer.

“We are very pleased with the recommendation and the fact that the company has accepted it – we are very grateful for that.

“I’m really happy to be back on a steady income and back to normal routine.”

Shop steward and employee Rik Tauroa said: “We are grateful to have reached an agreement…and we just have to get back to work.”

Kawerau Mayor Malcolm Campbell said it was “great news” for the community, the company and the workers.

“We are all happy that there is a resolution to all of this.

“There are no winners in this kind of situation. [a stoppage of work]. There are a lot of debts [the workers] have to maintain, so it will take some time to catch up. And the company is in the same situation.”

A press release from the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions yesterday said it was ‘a victory for workers’.

“Today is a good day for New Zealand workers, and an example of what we can achieve when we come together in union,” Chairman Richard Wagstaff said in the statement.

A press release from Essity said employees at the Kawerau paper mill had accepted an offer from Essity in accordance with the recommendations of the Labor Relations Authority.

Essity managing director in Kawerau, Peter Hockley, said reaching an agreement allowed them to resume production, which was “in everyone’s interest”.

“The union has decided that the employees will return to work on September 19, so we are now preparing for the resumption of production at the factory.

“Essity is now focused on the long-term future of the Kawerau plant and rebuilding our relationship with the workers at the plant.”

Essity has shown its commitment to the Kawerau plant by investing $130 million in plant upgrades over the past few years, according to the statement.

The uncertainty of the strike put on hold an additional $14 million investment to modernize its paper machines and drastically reduce the mill’s carbon emissions.

“Reaching an agreement and getting the plant back up and running is a good outcome for everyone,” Hockley said.

Essity was approached for further comment in response to Phillips.