MAC/20: Mines and Communities

Miners urged to avoid UN deals

Published by MAC on 2003-11-14

Miners urged to avoid UN deals

By Wendy Pryer, West Australian

November 14 2003

Employers have been warned not to sign deals with the United Nations after BHP Billiton was accused yesterday of breaching international obligations by requiring new employees on WA mine sites to sign individual contracts.

The WA Chamber of Commerce and Industry issued the warning after questioning why the UN had bothered to write to BHP Billiton about its industrial relations practices when other countries were jailing unionists.

"I don't think anyone is suggesting internationally that BHP is anything but a good employer," CCI director of employee relations Bruce Williams said.

The UN, prompted by a union complaint, wrote to BHP Billiton last week reminding it that a UN agreement it had voluntarily signed promoted collective bargaining and freedom of association, or the right to join a union.

The letter was made public by a CFMEU official at BHP Billiton's annual general meeting in Melbourne yesterday.

The ACTU complained to the UN that BHP Billiton was breaching those principles by making individual contracts a condition of work on its WA mine sites.

About 75 per cent of BHP Billiton's WA workforce have signed individual contracts. New employees must sign the contracts but they can join the union.

The company's chairman Don Argus denied union claims that BHP Billiton had violated the agreement, saying the use of individual contracts was allowed under the UN agreement.

The UN did acknowledge in its letter that it could not force BHP Billiton to change its industrial relations practices.

Mr Argus said the company was committed to freedom of association and all its employees could join a union.

"It's standard practice in the iron ore industry in Western Australia for new employees to choose . . . to join the company on the basis of individual contracts," Mr Argus said. Only one big WA mining company gives new employees the option of a collective agreement.

Mr Williams said the attack on BHP Billiton was a lesson to all employers contemplating signing an agreement on good corporate citizenship with the UN.

"Employers need to learn the lesson about voluntarily entering into these sorts of agreements," he said.

Unions would use such agreements as leverage to promote their own self interest - that of getting more union members by abolishing individual agreements.

The CFMEU accused the company at the AGM of misleading shareholders by promoting its adherence to the agreement.

CFMEU mining president Tony Maher said BHP Billiton had trumpeted its commitment to the UN agreement to win favour as a socially responsible company yet it had failed to follow one of the agreement's key principles.

There is no process for formal complaints under the UN system which means it was not required to write to BHP Billiton following the ACTU complaint.

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