MAC: Mines and Communities

'Tough times' for BHP at Melbourne AGM

Published by MAC on 2003-11-14

Denton verbal assault on BHP mine

By Barry FitzGerald, Resources Editor, The Age

November 14, 2003

ABC TV host and funny man Andrew Denton did not get the answers he was looking for when he quizzed BHP Billiton chairman Don Argus at the group's annual meeting at the Melbourne Concert Hall yesterday.

So much so that after Mr Denton and 700 other shareholders had filed out of the 190-minute meeting, Mr Denton scored the chairman's performance as "poor". "It's good to know that the ability of not answering a question at great length is not restricted to Canberra," Mr Denton said.

Mr Denton quizzed Mr Argus on BHP Billiton's plans for the Gag Island nickel deposit in Indonesia and supported a call from shareholder activist Stephen Mayne for the company to provide a full explanation for the shock departure of Brian Gilbertson as chief executive earlier this year.

Mr Denton and a procession of other environmental/human rights shareholders asked whether BHP Billiton had been involved in Federal Government lobbying efforts with the Indonesian Government to allow mining on Gag Island, which the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation believes might be worthy of World Heritage listing.

But Mr Argus said no work was being done on the project and that he was not aware of the group's involvement in any lobbying efforts. He said he would ask the question himself at the group's next board meeting.

Speaking from London, BHP Billiton chief executive Chip Goodyear reaffirmed the group's commitment not to mine in areas of global environmental significance. But he stopped short of saying that BHP Billiton would never seek to develop a mine on Gag Island.

Mr Denton said the company had effectively "left themselves a lot of holes to slide out of" on the subject of Gag Island.

He said he found it extraordinary that Mr Argus did not have any knowledge of the lobbying by the Federal Government.

"It's good to know that the ability of not answering a question at great length is not restricted to Canberra." - Andrew Denton

In response to the request for more information on Mr Gilbertson's departure, Mr Argus would say only what had been previously said, that it was due to irreconcilable differences with the board.

Mr Denton said he owned several hundred shares in his superannuation fund and that he was drawn to the Gag Island issue by his musician friend, David Bridie.

BHP Billiton was also taken to task at the meeting by unions over its use of individual employment contracts at its West Australian iron ore operations.

The Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) mining division's federal president, Tony Maher, asked whether the company was in breach of a United Nations compact obliging a signatory to allow workers to bargain collectively.

Mr Argus said the compact "does not suggest that employers change their industrial relations framework", adding that the company was committed to freedom of association and that all its employees were free to join a union.

Denton Hijacks BHP-Billiton AGM

Sydney Indiemedia

November 18 2003

Poor old Don Argus, he really just should have retired with a net worth of $30 million after a career with National Australia Bank. Instead, he's become a tainted and divisive professional chairman with a two-thirds failure record.

After putting up with plenty of abuse, Don't Argue shoe-horned the Business Council of Australia into developing a code of conduct for AGMs which is based on the template developed within BHP-Billiton.

Fellow BHP-Billiton director and outgoing BCA President John Schubert then ran the loud campaign about containing ferals at AGMs.

Lo and behold, the BHP-Billiton AGM got hijacked yesterday by more special interest groups than any other AGM this season, with the possible exception of Boral.

Crikey did a hit and run, bailing out after a brief stoush with Don't Argue to come home and put the edition together. However, it was good to read this morning that Denton backed up our criticism of BHP for failing to properly explain why Brian Gilbertson was sacked.

At the end of the day, BHP Billiton is just too large to pin down. Don't Argue knows this, and he uses the demagogic power of the Chairman's platform to smother dissent at every turn.

The company's so big it even has two AGMs. And ginger groups know this gives them two opportunities to push their causes in a very public venue. Yesterday's Australian AGM, help appropriately deep underground in the Melbourne Concert Hall, had it all: celebrities; old fashioned shareholders, unionists, greenies - even the occasional miner.

A group called the Mineral Policy Institute did its homework, launching a co-ordinated assault on BHP-Billiton's desire to extract nickel from Indonesia's Gag Island.

A smart brunette lawyer, Techa Beaumont, led the attack, supported by folk singer David Bridie, and Andrew Denton. And they won big coverage from a star-struck Barry FitzGerald in The Age, yesterday, and today:

It is fair to say that if BHP did have any desires to exploit the nickel deposit on Gag Island it received a major setback yesterday, although getting it listed as a World Heritage area would obviously seal the matter once and for all.

News Ltd rarely gets behind an environmental campaign so Denton naturally got a lesser run in Rupert's papers.

There was also the IR angle, with unionists trying to squeeze better work deals out of the company:

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.

'Tough times' for BHP - BHP boss defends IR stance


November 13, 2003

BHP Billiton chairman Don Argus is defending the company's right to refuse collective bargaining agreements to new employees, particularly in Western Australia's Pilbara region.

Unions are concerned the practice of forcing new employees to sign individual agreements will erode their power to collectively bargain and breaches company commitments made to the United Nations.

Mr Argus told shareholders at the annual general meeting it is standard practice in Western Australia's iron ore industry and productivity has increased since adopting it.

He says all employees still have the right to join a union. But outside the meeting, the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union's Tony Maher disagreed.

"The letter from the United Nations says that's right at the time of signing, but they're expected to comply over time and BHP has got themselves between a rock and a hard place," he said. "Quite clearly they have to change their practices in Western Australia, or renounce the global compact."

Meanwhile the company has guaranteed the company will not mine West Papua's Gag Island should it join the World Heritage list of protected sites. But it has refused to rule out any ventures in the area prior to protection being granted.

Mr Argus has strongly denied any knowledge of the company placing pressure on the Indonesian Government to allow it to mine the area.

Outside, media personality and shareholder Andrew Denton raised doubts about that.

"In Parliament last year the Foreign Minister said that the Australian Government had spoken to the Indonesian government on several occasions at the request of mining companies including BHP, to change their mining laws, so that specifically there could be mining on Gag Island," he said. Gag Island is currently being considered for World Heritage listing.

And Mr Argus has refused to be drawn on demands he further explain the departure of former chief executive Brian Gilbertson. Earlier, shareholders were told the global economic situation continues to challenge the company's bottom line.

Mr Argus told shareholders a weak global economy combined with the rising Australian dollar has made it a tough year for the company. He said a recent rally in prices for commodities such as nickel, copper and oil was going some way towards alleviating the pressure. "We should expect a continuation of the... improving environment for commodities," he said.

The company posted a net annual profit in August of $3.2 billion.

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