Article Title

Work and Community: the Port Kembla Copper Smelter, 1900–1920


The copper smelter and refinery at Port Kembla, formerly known as the Electrolytic Refining and Smelting Company (ER&S), has attracted considerable controversy in recent times. The history from which the new works of the Southern Copper company emerges, however, is largely forgotten. This paper is about reclaiming part of that history. Its objective is simple – to move those people who are fundamental to that history out of the forgotten shadows to centre stage. The work of those who built and worked the furnaces and residents who absorbed much of the company’s environmental excesses in the form of lead fumes, sulphur dioxide and dusts, those who are the heart and soul of Port Kembla’s past – is largely ignored by their economic and political masters. Instead of work and toil we hear ‘jobs’; instead of work hazards and risks we hear ‘economic progress’; instead of injury and death we hear ‘the bottom line’; and in place of environmental or health justice, we hear ‘environmental best practice’ and assertions about environmental safety. This paper has four parts. The first part traces the history of the early days of the Port Kembla smelter. The second part examines working conditions within the plant and briefly tells the stories of some of the workers and residents. This part also looks at the responses of company, government, union and community to the plant’s work. The final part draws parallels between the past and the government’s recent decision to introduce special legislation and considers the implications of this case for the broader question of environmental justice.