Hundred jobs in doubt at Deniliquin rice mill

By Country News

The future of up to 100 jobs is in doubt, with SunRice last Thursday announcing plans to downsize its Deniliquin and Leeton rice mills.

Although unclear how many of the Deniliquin mill’s current 152 employees will be let go, the town is expected to bear the brunt of the downsizing.

SunRice announced the plan as a result of ‘‘very low water availability and high water prices’’.

The 2019 rice crop size is expected to be the second smallest recorded since the start of the millennium drought in 2003, with predictions of as much as an 800 per cent reduction in volume.

‘‘The decision to reconfigure Riverina milling operations in 2019 is necessary to ensure a competitive and sustainable business for our employees, growers, shareholders and the communities we support,’’ SunRice chief executive officer Rob Gordon said.

‘‘SunRice remains firmly committed to its Riverina operations and will continue to be one of the region’s largest employers.’’

The proposed reconfiguration, which is subject to consultation with employees and unions, will see operational changes and shift restructuring at the Deniliquin and Leeton mills take effect from January 2, with the final phase to be effective from July or August next year.

Edward River Council Mayor Norm Brennan said although not unexpected, the news was a blow to the community.

The rice mill is the fourth biggest employer in the town.

‘‘A majority knew, with a nil allocation of water, that there wasn’t a lot of rice going in,’’ Cr Brennan said.

‘‘I think they’re expecting 100000 tonnes instead of the usual 700000 or 800000 tonnes.

‘‘There’s a business decision they had to make ... Deniliquin will likely take a larger percentage (of the job cuts).’’

Cr Brennan said efforts were being made to assist affected workers in finding new employment elsewhere around the region, with two solar farms set to begin construction in Blighty and Mayrung.

He said the job losses were a result of not just drought or a poor season, but the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

‘‘This is a direct result of the basin plan’s failure to protect communities,’’ he said.

‘‘We haven’t got the balance that should be there ... The insistence of the (recovering the) 450Gl questions belief.’’

Rice Growers Association president Jeremy Morton echoed Cr Brennan’s views and said the news was ‘‘very distressing’’.

‘‘While the drought is a significant factor, there is no doubt that the basin plan is responsible for some of these people losing their job,’’ Mr Morton said.

‘‘That is the power of water, because without water we have nothing.’’

The Deniliquin Rice Mill was last closed during the millennium drought in 2007 and reopened in 2011 after significant rains the previous year.