Rio Tinto's 'most shameful practices'Published by MAC on 1998-05-15
Rio Tinto's 'most shameful practices'
Rio Tinto in the eye the storm - Brussels, May 15 1998
By Natacha David
The ICEM has revealed the truth about the ruthless world of Rio Tinto to the Annual General Assembly of the company's shareholders. Faced with the titan of the mining industry, the trade union response must be equally forceful.
May 13 was a black day in the history of British mining giant Rio Tinto. Addressing the Annual General Assembly of the company's shareholders in London, trade union leaders from the International Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers' Unions (ICEM) presented a detailed report exposing the multinational's most shameful practices, and threatened to reconsider its pension fund investments in Rio Tinto if the enterprise did not put an end to the violations of trade union rights, human rights, environmental rights and the rights of indigenous peoples.
The ICEM also held a parallel assembly in London, called a "factual general meeting". The assembly was open to the public and was aimed at drawing public attention to Rio Tinto's business practices. Human rights activists, environment activists, representatives of the indigenous peoples of Indonesia, Colombia and Nevada (USA) joined trade unionists in taking the floor. They told tales of exploitation and in same cases outright terror caused by Rio Tinto, in connivance with local authorities. A representative of the Guajira people of Colombia explained how Rio Tinto had despoiled his people of their land. He pointed in particular to the activities in the El Cerrejon region. The name El Cerrejon is a familiar one to us", commented Vic Thorpe, General Secretary of the ICEM. "It has been the scene of many miners' strikes - in some cases put down by military force. This is a good example of the community of interest between the workers of Rio Tinto and other people who suffer from Rio Tinto's operations."
Deliberately eliminating the unions Rio Tinto is the biggest private mining company in the world. It directly employs some 51,000 people, but the incomes of many more people depend, one way or another, on the activities of the group. The enterprise runs more than 60 mines and factories in over 40 countries.
From Australia to Brazil, via Norway, the Philippines and the Czech Republic, Rio Tinto has built up an appalling record of human and trade union rights violations, community destruction, environmental damage and disregard for the lives of indigenous people. On the industrial relations front, Rio Tinto is deliberately seeking to eliminate trade union organisations in many of its establishments. For example, it hands out bonuses to workers in an Australian coal mine for producing coal "free" of the involvement of trade unions. Again in Australia, the enterprise which seeks by every means to impose individual employment contracts to circumvent collective agreements and neutralise the trade unions has gone so far as making staff available to the authorities to draft labour legislation, an initiative deemed by the International Labour Organisation's (ILO) Committee of Experts to be a violation of the right to organise and bargaining collectively, as foreseen in international labour legislation. Rio Tinto is also being taken to court in the United Kingdom by workers accusing it of being responsible for the cancers they contracted while working in mines in Namibia.
The ICEM notes in passing that members of the Rio Tinto board of directors, some of the highest paid executives in the world, have promised to award themselves a 33 per cent bonus if the enterprise manages to get onto the "international industrial league table", a list of 15 mining enterprises drawn up by Rio Tinto management itself. This bonus could rise to 100 per cent if the company reaches the top four in the league table. "Let's just say that the workers who are responsible for Rio Tinto's wealth would be very happy to get the same bonus" comments the ICEM wryly.
Half truths and distortions
The vice-President of the ICEM, the Australian John Maitland, was one of the trade union leaders who bought Rio Tinto shares in order to be able to take part in the shareholders general assembly in London. "I'd made what I and others considered to be a moderate and responsible statement. I emphasised that our stakeholders' report is part of our attempt to engage in proper, constructive negotiations with the company."
"I was amazed by Wilson's response (Rio Tinto Chairman Robert Wilson). Instead of answering my points, he launched into a series of arrogant character assassinations against officers of the ICEM and the CFMEU (the Australian construction, forestry, mining and energy union affiliated to the ICEM). He also accused us of engaging in misinformation. But in fact his own comments were full of half-truths and distortions. For example, he told the meeting that a miners' strike in Indonesia ended within three days. That is correct, but he omitted to mention that the strike ended because it was broken up at gunpoint by the army."
"Then Wilson told shareholders that "The Way We Work" had been "widely discussed" before it was launched. But was never discussed with unions at Rio Tinto or with environmental and civic campaigners. In fact, Rio Tinto did send a copy for comment to the ICFTU, whose General Secretary, Bill Jordan, sent back a closely-argued 8-page critique. Not one of Bill Jordan's comments was ever mentioned by Rio Tinto, and not a single change was made to the document on the basis of Bill Jordan's letter."
The ICFTU's involvement
The ICFTU fully supports the ICEM's campaign against Rio Tinto. After reading "The Way We Work" Bill Jordan commented that it was "more a public relations exercise than a credible and serious commitment". Denouncing Rio Tinto's business practices, and in particular the enterprises attempts to individualise labour relations, which undermines the very existence of the trade union movement, the ICFTU General Secretary wrote to his affiliated organisations in the countries concerned to ask them to support the campaign.
"The ICFTU is supporting this campaign not only because the issues are fundamental to the future of the trade union movement, but because we believe that the ICFTU and its affiliates can make a difference in this effort to convince Rio Tinto to adopt and implement decent industrial relations policies."
The ICFTU urged its affiliates to assist efforts to make sure that governments and the general public are aware of Rio Tinto's practices.