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Not wanting to lose more colleagues

Kjell-Ove Skredlund and Linda Bakken are concerned for their colleagues in Store Norske. FOTO: Eirik Palm

Not wanting to lose more colleagues

Linda Bakken, 39, sends a warm look to little three-month-old Sigbjørn sitting on the lap of her father Kjell-Ove Skredlund, 29. Inside the apartment at Vei 238 it is snug. At the workplace there is a storm.



20.11.2014 kl 17:07

"The way I see it now, anything can happen," said Bakken, who works as an Aerodrome Flight Information Service (AFIS) representative for Store Norske at the airport at Svea. The couple met in Ny-Ålesund and moved to Longyearbyen in 2012, where they established themselves. Skredlund works for the fire and rescue services at Svea, and the two work 14-day-on/14-day-off shifts. When he has time off he is at home with his partner, who is on maternity leave. This week it became clear that 100 jobs are in jeopardy at the coal company.

"There is no feeling sorry for us," Bakken said. "We do not need to live in Svalbard. We can move down to the mainland and we have no loans."

Some years of scaling down
On Tuesday afternoon the message came many feared: the administration is proposing to eliminate 100 of the current 340 positions at Store Norske. This comes just 18 months after the last round, when 80 positions were removed. The proposal also calls for a sharp reduction in operations where, among other things, cutting new panels will be suspended and only the most easily accessible coal – the cheapest to extract – will be produced.
The reason is Store Norske is in a crisis situation. Coal prices are low – at least 10 dollars a ton below what is required to break even – so the company is losing money on every kilogram it produces.

"We can not continue with that," said Annette Malm Justad, chairwoman of the company's board of directors. "We see that there are some years coming that are difficult and we have to scale down so we can take out the most coal at the lowest price."

An extraordinary meeting of the board is scheduled Monday. Justad said she will not anticipate the outcome, but the probability is high the proposal will be adopted, perhaps with minor changes.

"This will be a short board meeting," she said.

'Very dramatic'
On Oct. 27, the board confirmed the cornerstone company faces a critical situation and needs help from the central government, which owns 99.9 percent of the company, and the bank. It has since been working to come up with various solutions and on Tuesday employees were informed.

"We can not continue as at present," the chairwoman said. "This is part of several things we must work with and part of an overall plan for putting in place an operational plan for the next few years."

Store Norske is also planning to review of its contracts with suppliers and reducing costs where possible. Meeting with the government and the bank are planned in January.
"But first we must have a plan that we believe is realistic and acceptable to the bank," Justad said. "This is very dramatic, for it affects a great many people and the entire Svalbard community."

Sad to lose colleagues

The downsizing is the second during the past 18 months. The company eliminated 80 positions in 2013 and Skreberg was among those dismissed. Since then he has had short-term contracts and the end date has continuously been tweaked.

"It is a little bit odd and obviously bothersome to have that hanging over you," the 29-year-old said.

The sense of crisis is also evident at work. Bakken said a colleague, who has previously been proud to say where he works, now feels a little embarrassed.

"It's sad with all the colleagues we lost under the downsizing last year and we will not lose more," she said. "It has major consequences for many and it is hard to have an insecure job situation, especially for those who have kids in school."

Not ready to go
Bakken said she is concerned about environmental issues, but believes it is a gross simplification to say the only solution is to end coal mining.

"Longyearbyen will exist without Store Norske, but in a different form," she said. "One must remember that stopping in Svea also will have consequences for Sodexo, AF, Lufttransport and others, as well as families who are along for the ride. It has consequences for the number of children in the school, workers and revenue in stores. Coal operations likely must be wound up in the long term, but there will be serious consequences if it happens now. We're not ready for it yet in Longyearbyen."
What if the couple needs to move now?

"We do not want to move," Bakken said. "Financially there is no crisis, but we're not being allowed to decide for ourselves when to go. We appreciate the nature, the people and the environment up here. We feel that we are in no way done with our lives here and don't want to move down yet."

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