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LAWRENCE GULLERY
It's been 20 years since the Whakatu freezing works shut its doors, stripping the Hawke's Bay community of more than 1500 jobs.
The closure, on October 10, 1986, shattered the Whakatu township.
It also affected the rest of Hawke's Bay, particularly the settlements of Clive, Kohupatiki, Waipatu and Haumoana.
The Hawke's Bay Farmers Meat Company, which operated the Whakatu freezing works, was established in 1912 and for many people who worked at the plant it was known as the "University of Life".
During its heyday people came from as far as the East Coast to settle and seek employment at the freezing works - the majority were Maori families. And some faces would later become famous.
Among those to have worked stints there include former Hawke's Bay MP, (now Wanganui mayor) Michael Laws, well-known Maori entertainer Howard Morrison and Ngati Kahungunu Iwi Incorporated chairman, Ngahiwi Tomoana.
The reasons for its closure are still debated today. Newspaper reports of the time said the closure was part of a national rationalisation plan to reduce the killing capacity of major freezing works operations around the country.
Other commentators blamed live-sheep exports from New Zealand and a shortfall in the lamb and beef kill. Garth Tichborne was an organiser of the Hawke's Bay East Coast branch of the New Zealand Meat Workers' Union during the 1980s.
Mr Tichborne has lived in Whakatu for 75 years and said he still he remembered the day the works closed.
"I saw men cry ... we had a meeting up in the dining room and the company said 'don't come in tomorrow, the works is finished'. They walked out of the works and that was it," Mr Tichborne said.
"It is one of the worst things that has ever happened to this country and I think we never recovered from it," he said.
Mr Tichborne's nephew, Nick, was secretary of the sub-branch of the Meat Workers' Union and was involved in negotiations to keep the works open, and later with redundancy talks.
About 300 former Whakatu workers received redundancy payments in December, 1986. But the majority of workers, about 1600, had to wait until March the following year when a settlement was made between company and union negotiators for a $17m redundancy package.
The union tried hard to fight the closure and met the district's Labour MPs, David Butcher (Hastings), Bill Sutton (Hawke's Bay) and Geoff Braybrooke (Napier) to formulate a plan.
Many people expected the Government to step in, but the Labour Prime Minister of the time, David Lange, took a hands-off approach to the problem and said it did not want to intervene in the decision to close Whakatu.
"There wasn't much we [the union] could do ... later on Takapau [freezing works] started up, took about 700 people and a lot of people went to Australia to look for work. There was nothing around here any more," Mr Tichborne said.
The Whakatu resource centre was set up to help find work for the 1500 laid-off workers.
It was co-ordinated by retired Hawke's Bay executive, Jock McKenzie, who was a former marketing director of HBF Dalgety and was secretary of the Hastings Chamber of Commerce.
A similar resource centre was set up for victims of the Tomoana freezing works closure in 1994, which co-ordinated with government departments, Employment Service and Income Support to help people find work.
Geoff Braybrooke, Napier MP from 1981 to 2002, said it was the suddenness of the closure which took most people by surprise.
"There were no negotiations. We were just told there was an oversupply of freezing works in the country and it closed. "It was a heartless act and a lot of good people, including good tradesmen, were just thrown on the scrapheap."
Mr Braybrooke said he lobbied to have the freezing works kept open, but was unsuccessful.
"Employment in that area was an important topic at the time and I was in favour of a modified freezing works. I thought it could be downscaled or put to other use," he said.
The former Labour MP, now retired and living in Levin, said he felt he had "failed" the community after the works closed.
"The two failures in my political career was Whakatu and not being able to save the Napier Hospital. I felt I let the people down," he said.
Harry Williams, who worked at Whakatu from 1965 to 1986, is organising a reunion to mark 20 years since the works closed down.
He said there would be a small book presented at the reunion, depicting "the good times" at the works as well as a memorial plaque which will be a tribute to those who spent time working at the giant freezing works plant.
"Hopefully we will be able to see some familiar faces, have a few drinks over at the bowling club and it will just be a happy occasion," Mr Williams said.
Mr Williams still lives in Whakatu. He said he had just moved into the town a year before the works closed.
"It was an awful shock for me. I was a butchers' [union] delegate and there were lots of rumours about the works closing down," Mr Williams said.
"I spoke to [Hawke's Bay Farmers Meat Company managing director] Ian Cameron and he said there was no truth in the rumours.
"I called the boys off the chain at smoko time and told them to take no notice of the rumours, that the manager said there was nothing to worry about.
"And then the works closed down that night," he said.
A decade after the works closed, the Wellington School of Medicine's Maori Health Research Centre completed a study into the long-term health effects of people made redundant by the Whakatu closure.
The study was also extended to include some of the 1400 workers who lost their jobs following the Tomoana freezing works in 1994.
In 1997, researchers sent out letters to former Whakatu workers seeking their approval to be part of the study, which compared hospitalisation and death rates of workers before and after the closure.
At the time it was believed to be the first significant study of health effects of unemployment on a community.
Among the key findings of the study, it was discovered that after Whakatu closed, the former workers of the plant had higher levels of serious self-harm.
The study recommended that government and businesses acknowledge that being made unemployed causes ill-health. It also called for strategies to cover issues such as the inappropriateness of closures without warning, and the health impact of being made unemployed.
Whakatu continues to be a sought-after location for industry, with its central location to Hastings and Napier, and access to the railway network through to the Port of Napier.
Hastings District Council chief executive, Murray Gilbertson, said Whakatu was an important area, especially in terms of industrial growth for "wet" industries.
The area had access to a wastewater discharge system - built when the freezing works was operating - and was therefore ideal for food-processing industries and other activities that generate large amounts of wastewater.
"We would like to see more wet industries in there because we have the infrastructure already set up in that area," Mr Gilbertson said.
HDC's strategic development manager, Mark Clews, said the council was working on a strategy to develop industry in the Irongate, Omahu Road and Whakatu/Tomoana areas over the next couple of years. He said part of the plan was to build an industrial corridor between Whakatu and Tomoana, linking the two industrial sites.