Cape Town - Hout Bay’s controversial fish-meal factory, which has caused a big stink among the suburb’s well-heeled residents, may soon shut, leading to concerns over job losses for its 98 employees.
The Oceana Group announced on Friday that following years of complaints from Hout Bay residents over the factory’s smell, it was proposing to shut it down and move its operations to the West Coast town of St Helena Bay, 150km from Cape Town.
No decision has yet been made, however.
In a statement the group said it was giving “serious consideration” to closing the plant that has produced fishmeal and fish oil since 1958.
It said the plant had been operating at a loss since it took the decision three years ago to decrease its production by 40 percent.
This was done in an attempt to placate the area’s residents, who complained that the smell it produced was unbearable.
Instead of operating for between 120 and 180 days a year, it now only functions for 60 days a year.
Oceana said this change hadn’t decreased the number of complaints. In fact, they had “escalated significantly” over the past 12 months.
For the factory to again become profitable, the plant would have to operate for over 120 days a year.
“Given the current environment, an increase in processing volumes would escalate complaints from certain sectors of the community and it could make operations unworkable.”
Oceana said that it had invested over R50 million in “odour minimisation technology” in the past 15 years. It said, however, there was “no system in the world that can completely eliminate the odour”.
The group said it didn’t want any employees to lose their jobs. “In the event that the company decides to cease operations at Hout Bay, it will guarantee alternative employment to all 98 employees at its St Helena Bay facility or anywhere else in the group where positions may be available, together with relocation allowances.”
Zolani Mbanjwa, the national fishing sector organiser for the Food and Allied Workers Union, said the employees were shocked when they heard the news on Friday morning.
A total of 90 of the plant’s 98 employees are members of the union, which is affiliated to Cosatu. On Friday afternoon after meeting with workers, Mbanjwa said the union believed the plant could keep operating.
“The process that has started today is a consultation process with the union,” he said.
“We are still in talks with the company.”
Mbanjwa said some workers had said they would consider relocating to St Helena, but others were set against it.
The union’s general secretary, Katishi Masemola, warned that closing the plant would leave Hout Bay as a “ghost town”.
“If a company as big as Oceana Group is compliant why should it fear community backlash?” he asked.
The union will hold another meeting with Oceana management on Thursday, which will be mediated by the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration.
Hout Bay resident Ike Moritz, who is a member of the community group Fresh Air For Hout Bay, said the group never wanted workers to lose their jobs or the factory to close. “We just wanted the stench to stop.”
Moritz said residents of Hout Bay had complained of nausea, red eyes and had difficulty sleeping because of the smell.
“It’s great that our goal will be achieved, but obviously we don’t want anyone to lose their jobs.”
As part of its campaign for fresher air, the group launched a website and urged community members to lodge complaints with the city.
The website links to YouTube music video of Moritz singing a song he wrote: Lucky Star Ain’t What You Are.
It includes the lyrics: “Your breath smells like a fish cigar; leave our hood cause this romance is over.”
Councillor Siyabulela Mamkeli, mayoral committee member for health, said the city had carried out numerous inspections of the plant following complaints.
City Health became the competent authority for checking for air pollution from factories in 2010.
Mamkeli said that under normal operating conditions, the facility was generally being operated in compliance with the atmospheric emission licence conditions.
“Occasional process upsets over the years were responsible for significant odour emissions.
“These process upsets were, however, the exception and not the norm.”