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Fearing nervous residents

"I feel that this time we are in the most challenging period ever," says Geir Hekne, who as of Monday has lived in Svalbard for 43 years.



19.12.2014 kl 12:12

Hekne is in full swing with the Christmas cleaning in the garage at the fire station where he works. At the age of eight he moved with his family to Longyearbyen and when he was 16 he got his first job as a plumber at Store Norske. During the past 43 years he has experienced many ups and downs in the local community. His attachment is strong, as are his feeling for the community at 78 degrees latitude north.

"You feel a sense of belonging. It is quite emotional," Hekne says.
"I've thought a lot about it in recent days. I think it's sad when I see people who have to depart from their workplaces. One can say a lot about Store Norske, but it has been a lifebuoy."

250 employees
The cuts at Store Norske are shaking up the entire community. Discussions with a final group of employees occurred this week and now the formal layoffs will occur. Of the 95 workers who are being downsized at this time, 78 are covered by the mining union's collective agreement.

"We will be down to approximately 250 employees in the company," said Arild Olsen, the union steward for Store Norske's employees.

"I can't exclude that there may be new dismissals into next year, but according to my members I don't see that there will be more."

Why not?

"The machines we will have going require a certain number of employees," Olsen said.
"There is no room to cut down more."

On Wednesday, Olsen had his last meetings with members and colleagues who have been notified their employment is pending. None of them contacted by Svalbardposten wanted to be interviewed. Olsen said those affected are generally taking it well and he is impressed with how they've handled the situation.

"It can be a shock to lose your job," he said. "We have been committed to running an orderly process that can stand in retrospect. Everyone must feel that they are being treated fairly."

What is he thinking when he goes to those meetings?

"It's a bit strange, because when you see all 100 you see the whole picture, not individuals," Olsen said. "When you go to the meetings you put on the hat where the individual members are in focus. The reality of the individual is real."

Store Norske's board of directors is scheduled to meet by teleconference Dec. 22. The board plans to meet again on Jan. 12, probably to prepare for meetings with the bank and the central government, the latter of which owns 99.9 percent of Store Norske. At that point, plans for continuing operations and refinancing are expected to be submitted. Norway's Minister of Justice and Public Security Anders Anundsen, who visited Svalbard this week since the ministry has judicial authority over the archipelago, declined to comment on how supportive he believes the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Fisheries will be toward Store Norske's proposals.

Longyearbyen Mayor Christin Kristoffersen, a Labor Party member, said she is keeping her fingers crossed.

"We're putting our trust in a wisely performed ownership from the Ministry of Industry and awaiting their response," she said. "That's what we can do."

Meanwhile, the Longyearbyen community is preparing for the possibility of a kindergarten closing down and secondary school offerings put at risk because of fewer students.

Hekne, the local leader of the Conservative Party and Longyearbyen's deputy mayor, said he is concerned because there will be fewer residents to share costs. Although there will be 100 fewer vehicles in Longyearbyen, there will still as just as many roads needing maintenance. The same applies to other infrastructure funded by cost recovery principles.

Recent figures also indicate some business sectors have small profit margins and Hekne said he is afraid companies may fail because people are pinching their pocketbooks.
"The last thing we need is a nervous population that won't take advantage of deals. It can be self-reinforcing," he said, adding:

"I feel that this time we are in the most challenging period ever, both with regard to the economy and with the arguments against coal."

Similarly to Kristoffersen and others in the community, Hekne said he wants Store Norske to remain an industrial locomotive and clearly states he is a supporter of coal mining. He said the footprint of coal mining on Svalbard is negligible, the high quality of coal here is in demand, the world needs energy, and there are no alternatives for industrial and energy production in Svalbard today. Furthermore, he said he believes purifying technology is coming.

"Meanwhile, we have to take the initiative while the company is struggling, we must look at other options," he said. "Right now I fear that coal production will be a very small part of Store Norske. There are major challenges in the raw materials market and the political acceptance is small. But I am convinced that if we stand and stand united, we will be able to get us through this."

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