In the short term, job losses are devastating for the workers involved. But a transition to other industries can have many positive effects, writes Simon Copland.
Recently, Holden announced that it was ceasing operations in Australia from 2017. After days of speculation about its future, the company confirmed the worst - a loss to Australia that will impact around 2,900 workers. Holden’s announcement comes after earlier this week coal company Peabody said that they would be closing the Wilkie Creek coal mine in central Queensland, resulting in the loss of 200 jobs. This came after Rio Tinto announced a few weeks ago it was closing the Gove Alumina Refinery near Darwin, resulting in the loss of 1,100 jobs.
It all seems like pretty shocking news. Each of these represents the closure of major infrastructure, or in the case of Holden, the loss of a national industry ‘icon’. Put together, these closures, which have been announced within the space of a month, will result in thousands of job losses, deeply affecting communities.
But whilst job losses are extremely tough, particularly in the sorts of remote areas in which these types of operations often occur, there is an alternate view here. There are good parts to each of these closures. The closures are each in some ways good for our society, good for our environment, and good for our economy. In fact, overall, they can be seen as a good thing.
Let’s go backwards, and take each example case by case.
The announcement of the closure of the Gove Alumina refinery looks potentially disastrous for the Nhulunbuy community near by. With over 1,000 jobs lost it is still possible that a rescue package (a package for one of the largest companies in the world!) could be announced.
What the stories don’t tell us though is the massive environmental impacts Alumina refining has. An assessment of the Gove Refinery for example showed that it produced over 2 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year. Just look at photos of the refinery and you can see a huge polluting being, pollution that has impacts not just on our climate, but on people’s health, and the quality of our land, water and air. The negative impacts of this refinery are huge, negative impacts we must take into account.
The closure of the Wilkie Creek coal mine is much more clear cut. Australia’s largest role in global warming can easily be attributed to coal mining. The Wilkie Creek coal mine had an export capacity of 2 million tons of coal each year, increasing extreme weather events such as the recent bushfires and Typhoon Haiyan in the Phillipines. Add to that the health impacts coal mines have due to the spread of dust and the impact on water from the huge amounts they need to operate, and the closure of a mine has plenty of positives.
But it’s not just environmental issues that are the problem here. The exit of Holden is clearly extremely difficult. However, it is important to remember that Holden, and the car industry in general, has been receiving tax payer support for years now. The ALP Government was a big fan of Government support, making the car industry a key plank of its last election campaign. And for an industry that has been struggling for a long time, this has represented a significant drain on Australian Government resources. This is the sort of money and investment that we could be putting into schools, hospitals, or solutions to global warming, rather than to an industry that seems on its way out.
A job loss is a very difficult thing. And as a society we must support everyone who loses jobs through closures such as these. But jobs are just one part of the picture.
Beyond the economic benefits they provide to individuals, jobs are good for our society through developing products and services that are of value of the community. Jobs need to sit in our value system, with the services and products they deliver not resulting in significant harm to society. And this is where these industries are starting to fail. The sorts of industries Australia is losing - coal, car manufacturing, and aluminum, are maybe the sorts of industries we should be losing. They are the industries of old, polluting our air, destroying our health, wrecking our land and water - and taking our Government resources to do so! They are the industries that no longer provide a net positive value to our society.
We must support those in transition from these sorts of losses. But when we take a step back we can see there are lots of positives. Whilst we have lost jobs in the short term, with each of these closures we have regained access to our land, water, air, and our Government resources. And whilst people can be retrained for new work, these are resources and opportunities that can not be rebuilt.