It would be "highly irresponsible" for governments to do nothing to avert the closure of of BlueScope, Greens senator Lee Rhiannon told the Senate on Wednesday.
On a day when South Coast Labour Council secretary Arthur Rorris and other unionists were in Canberra to lobby politicians, Senator Rhiannon delivered a 10-minute speech on the problems facing the Illawarra.
"You meet so many families where generation after generation have gained work there [at BlueScope]" she said.
"They've gained dignity ... they have become skilled workers and valued members of their local communities. To not engage with the prospect of the steel industry closing and work to avert that would be highly irresponsible for any political party. We clearly have a responsibility to ensure that there's not large-scale job losses in that area."
The unions are calling on governments to mandate the use of at least 50 per cent Australian steel in all taxpayer-funded infrastructure projects.
Senator Rhiannon said this was "a wise investment" and compared it to the strain that paying unemployment benefits to 10,000 people in Wollongong would place on the government.
"The additional cost to government of infrastructure would be substantially less than the economic, social and human costs of the unemployment," she said.
"We really need to ponder that message very closely."
She cited the University of Wollongong report that suggested a complete closure of the steelworks could blow a $3.3 billion hole in the regional economy and push adult unemployment rates to 17 per cent.
"The threat to the steel industry and to thousands of jobs in this area is real unless governments take action," she said. "The Abbott government needs to engage with this issue urgently."
She expressed concern about statements from BlueScope such as "needing a game-changing approach that will significantly reduce costs".
"Now that can be read as they're preparing for large-scale job losses," she said. "It can be read that they're out to bleed the workforce so they [can] run down the conditions of the workers at that plant."
Comments by Illawarra Business Chamber chief executive Debra Murphy that the region should remain calm were "disappointing and concerning", she said. "I do urge that this business chamber work with the unions and the community, as well as their own members on this very big challenge."
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