Reality sets in for Toyota workers on the last day at Altona

By | octubre 2, 2017
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Hands in pockets, shoulders hunched against the biting cold, three long-time colleagues stand outside and muse about their last day at work, after two decades together.

«When I was going through that turnstile for the last time … ,» says Matthew Kinson, trailing off, shaking his head. «Reality has kicked in today, that’s for sure.»

Australia’s declining car industry

This week more than two and a half thousand people will lose their jobs when Toyota closes its manufacturing plant in Melbourne.

His co-workers nod and agree. «It’s sunk in now,» says Michael Spiteri, an employee of 23 years. «I couldn’t sleep last night. I’ve been up since 4am.»

Four years have passed since auto giant Toyota told them it was shutting down the Altona production plant, the last car-making factory in Victoria. The closure, made official at 11.30am, puts 2600 staff out of well-paid work, and will trigger even more job losses in the wider economy.

«That four years, mate, it went pretty quick,» Mr Spiteri remarks. «But it is what it is. And we can’t change nothing now.»

At 6am, as the sun rose over Altona, thousands began arriving to work their final shift here and celebrate the end of a «long, proud era» of car manufacturing in Melbourne.

«It’s a terribly sad day for the whole country, and a tough blow for the thousands of affected workers and their families,» said Dave Smith, of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union.

«This plant is more than just a car plant for them … it’s a passion, it’s part of their lives.»

The closure of Toyota – the last mass-production car manufacturer left in Victoria – is the latest in a long succession of auto manufacturing shutdowns across the country, including Ford’s factories in Geelong and Broadmeadows, Holden in Port Melbourne, and Mitsubishi in Adelaide.

In less than two weeks, when Holden General Motors ends production in Adelaide, the industry will disappear from Australia entirely.

The impacts of the job losses are not confined to the factories themselves. More than 3000 Victorian supply-chain workers will be left unemployed from the many companies that make components for Toyota cars, according to the latest government modelling.

At least seven components manufacturers have recently closed, or are set to close in coming weeks, as a result of the Toyota shutdown, union officials said. These include businesses based in industrial areas of Melbourne’s north, west and south-east.

This plant is more than just a car plant for them … it’s a passion, it’s part of their lives

Dave Smith, Australian Manufacturing Workers Union

As of September, 84 component-making businesses across the state said they would be able stay open, while 25 would have to downsize, and at least 16 will close.

Toyota has been building cars in Australia for more than five decades, and, in recent years, has been the biggest local producer.

«A generation of Victorian men and women have dedicated most of their professional lies to building iconic cars for Australian roads,» state Industry Minister Wade Noonan said on Tuesday.

«Our thoughts are with every Toyota worker, supply chain business and family that is feeling the impacts of this closures.»

Retrenched workers from Australia’s car manufacturing sector  have been the focus of significant government and industry assistance in retraining and finding new employment. Mr Kinson recently received a forklift licence and will start working in transport. Mr Spiteri recently completed a six-month course in aviation security, and has a job interview lined up for next week.

But in the blue-collar manufacturing industry, studies have shown the average worker is 50 years old and has spent two decades with the one company – there are significant challenges for many in finding re-employment.

The Australian Manufacturing Workers Union said just 50 per cent of the Ford workers who lost their jobs last October had so far managed to find full-time work.

«At the Ford motor company, despite all the efforts to help people upskill and transition to new employment, that hasn’t happened in being able to help people find full-time jobs,» Mr Smith said on Tuesday, outside the Toyota factory.

«The loss of this plant, and 2600 well-paying, full-time jobs, is a tragedy.»

Toyota’s Altona plant will be the first mass-production facility in the world that the Japanese company has closed.

When Toyota announced its manufacturing exit, in 2014, Toyota Australia chairman Max Yasuda said the company had done everything it could to transform its business.

«But the reality is that there are too many factors beyond our control that make it unviable to build cars in Australia,» he said.

Toyota’s head office will remain in Port Melbourne, and all corporate functions will move from Sydney to Melbourne by January 1, 2018.

Toyota workers said there were mixed emotions on the factory floor, ahead of the official closure ceremony on Tuesday.

The final Toyota Camry built in Australia will roll off the production line this afternoon.

Works have received generous redundancy payments – an average of about $80,000 – but many are worried about finding work again.

«I hope everyone finds work,» Mr Spiteri says. «It’s going to be different to the work and conditions here … but like they say, one door closes and another one opens.»

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