Vale Manitoba Operations is down to about half as many employees in Thompson as it had three years ago after a comprehensive review of the division led to the elimination of 144 jobs.
Job losses resulting from review, announced back in June, when the company said it was losing $300,000 per day from its operations in Thompson, included 75 unionized hurly employees being laid off and another 25 taking early retirement packages, while 28 staff positions were eliminated and 16 staff employees opted for early retirement.
“These decisions have not been made lightly, and we recognize the significant impact they have on our employees, our businesses and the local community,” said Tara Ritchie of the company’s corporate and Indigenous affairs department in an Oct. 29 email. “These workforce adjustments represent one component of a larger plan to establish a new operating model that is structured and resourced to improve our health and safety outcomes, lower our unit costs and best meet our short- and long-term business needs. Vale is committed to safely transforming our operations and positioning us to secure the investment required to build future mines and grow our operations."
The reduction in hourly employees represents close to 20 per cent of the members of United Steelworkers Local 6166 who work for Vale – a total of 538 prior to the layoffs and retirements.
Union president Warren Luky says the layoffs, which affected workers with as much as 10 years seniority, and the retirements of unionized employees are a “real punch in the stomach” for Thompson.
“It’s a pretty hard time in the plant,” Luky said Thursday. "All the people that were affected by layoffs, it’s horrible for them.”
In addition to the loss of jobs and the resulting loss of Thompson residents – “I know we have hourly members moving out of town right now,” Luky says – the early retirees also take a lot of institutional knowledge out of Manitoba Operations with them.
Thompson MLA Danielle Adams asked Agriculture and Resource Development Minister Blaine Pedersen about the job cuts in the legislature Oct. 27, the day that hourly employees were informed of their layoffs by phone, something Luky felt was disrespectful.
“These workers need leadership that can develop jobs with a plan for the next 30 years to grow our northern communities and a plan for real investments for people in the north,” Adams said. “Why has the Pallister government abandoned the people of Thompson and the north?”
Pedersen said the loss of jobs was unfortunate but that Vale was taking these steps to ensure a viable long-term future,.
“Vale has informed us too that in the long run they continue to extract mineral nickel out of Thompson,” said Pedersen. "In fact, what they are projecting is that currently they’re producing 900,000 tonnes of nickel concentrate per year. They expect in two to three years they will be up to 1.1 million tonnes, thereby making sure the mine is viable.”
The minister also said that mining in general is going well in Northern Manitoba, with Hudbay unable to hire enough people for their operations in Snow Lake and Rockcliff Resources planning to develop three different mine sites near Highway 6.
Adams said the way mining operations in Thompson are being run is unacceptable.
“It’s clear that Vale is being run out of Sudbury,” she told the Thompson Citizen. “Vale is extracting the resources and we’re not seeing the benefit from it. We shouldn’t be having multinational companies extracting our resources and not supporting our local communities. The provincial government has left Thompson to fend for itself. It’s very clear that this government and Vale are not doing what is the best interest of Thompson.”
Luky said Workforce Adjustment Services are being offered to Vale employees who are losing their jobs, as they were in 2018, when the smelter and refinery permanently shut down, resulting in the loss of about 430 jobs at Vale over the course of the year after 120 jobs were lost at the end of 2017 when Birchtree Mine was placed into care and maintenance status. At the end of 2017 there were about 1,300 people working at Vale in Thompson. A year later it was 870. The latest job cuts bring it down to no more than about 725 workers.
Adams says in the midst of a global pandemic is not time for a company to be laying workers off, while Luky says it’s frustrating to union members who have lived through so much uncertainty about their futures over the last few years to be out of a job, especially when many experts are predicting that growth in electric vehicle sales and production will result in higher demand for nickel for batteries.
“Ironically we’re making the best, greenest nickel in the world and it’s exactly what Elon Musk is looking for now. As electric vehicles are coming, we have a product that will be sought after and we hope to be positioned in queue when that comes online.”
Workers also believe Vale is using contractors to do the jobs they used to.
“We do not have the full amount of contractors on site,” Luky says. “Our members really don’t understand. They’re very frustrated because they have been contributing to the company. They know their roles are still needed. They’re frustrated to see contractors coming into the plant while they’re being laid off. We just ask that they reach out to us if they have any questions. We’ll try to do the best we can with them.”