The Guardian April 4, 2001


BHP-Billiton merger sparks industrial action

by Peter Mac

Last week workers at BHP's steel plants at Hastings in Victoria and Port 
Kembla in NSW held a 24-hour stoppage to protest against the proposed 
merger of the company with Billiton, a major South African firm which is 
now listed on the London stock exchange. If it proceeds, the merger (or 
possibly takeover) would result in the largest mining company in the world, 
and one of the world's largest resource producers, second only to the 
multinational giant Alcoa.

With fresh memories of the mass retrenchments that accompanied last year's 
closure of BHP's Newcastle plant, the company's remaining workforce sought 
some reassurances as to their working future, and in particular the 
prospect of the company's steel making operations "spinning out" to foreign 
ownership.

So far, however, BHP employees have received almost no information in this 
respect, resulting in the pent-up frustration of employees and last week's 
strike actions.

The company itself was not the only organisation in the workers' sights.

Unions involved in the industrial action are deeply concerned about likely 
detrimental effects on the manufacturing industry, and the Federal 
Government's apparent lack of commitment to that industry.

They are demanding to know what action, if any, the Government intends to 
take regarding the potential loss of Australia's largest company, which has 
historically provided the basis of steel-making in Australia.

As reported in last week's "Guardian", Billiton was originally a Dutch 
firm, but was sold to Shell in 1970 and then to the South African mining 
giant Glencor in 1994.

The Mandela Government imposed restrictions to prevent the flight of 
capital out of South Africa, but in 1997 Glencor got around this by 
transferring all of its assets to Billiton, which was then listed on the 
London Stock Exchange.

Although BHP's publicity has nominated Melbourne as the headquarters of the 
proposed new company, it is widely expected that this would only be a 
temporary measure, and that the headquarters would soon be relocated to 
London. In this respect it is noteworthy that the announcement of the 
proposed merger was made in London.

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