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.