The axe has fallen at BHP Billiton’s Nickel West, with up to 100 support staff made redundant yesterday to reignite industry speculation the mining giant is preparing to sell the struggling business.

It is understood BHP has made sweeping cuts to support and ancillary staff, cutting accounting, human resources and other support roles at the division.

A BHP spokeswoman would not comment on how many Nickel West jobs had been cut, but it is understood up to 100 people were affected.

No operational or mining positions were lost, although BHP had already cut more than 150 workers from its Goldfields mines earlier this year, slowing mining at its Mt Keith operation in favour of treating ore stockpiles.

Yesterday’s cuts came only weeks after hundreds of jobs were chopped from BHP’s iron ore and coal divisions.

Although BHP has consistently denied rumours it intends to close or sell its nickel operations, Nickel West has struggled with operational problems and a low metal price. BHP sliced $US450 million ($433.6 million) from the value of Nickel West’s assets — comprising the Mt Keith and Leinster mines, Kalgoorlie nickel smelter, Kambalda concentrator and Kwinana refinery — citing “margin deterioration” and metal price downturn.

Nickel West president Paul Harvey yesterday emailed staff, declaring “market conditions remain a challenge” and that costs needed to be cut, although he expressed confidence the division couldremain a competitive producer.

“We are restructuring our functional support teams, which will result in a reduction in the number of employees from both the Nickel West Perth office and each Nickel West operation and at the same time making changes to align our organisational structure,” he said.

Sources say BHP is also considering other cost-saving measures, including curtailing its graduate recruitment and apprenticeship programs. While it is understood no jobs from either program have been cut, sources say members of the two-year graduate program have been told they will be redeployed to operational roles, and it is understood BHP is considering severely cutting back its intake over the coming year.

The 700-plus worldwide graduate program is understood to include about 130 local recruits. Recruitment of local apprentices may also be curtailed.

BHP would not discuss the graduate and apprentice programs but said increasing costs and falling commodity prices meant BHP was focusing on reducing overheads and operating costs.

The West Australian

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