MAC/20: Mines and Communities

Global Union Group Commits to Bring Rogue Company Rio Tinto to Justice, Reaffirms Solidarity

Published by MAC on 2003-09-26


Trade unionists impacted by the policies and practices of Rio Tinto have confirmed the need for the global campaigning network set up originally in 1997. At a conference held in September 2003 they also unanimously supported the ongoing struggles of communities directly impacted by the world's second biggest mining company.

The conference theme was "the fallacy of Rio Tinto's elaborate efforts to portray itself as socially responsible". Fortuitously Rio Tinto chair, Sir Robert Wilson, addressed the same topic at the same time in an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). But the chasm between corporate claims and workers' direct experience could hardly be greater...

Global Union Group Commits to Bring Rogue Company Rio Tinto to Justice, Reaffirms Solidarity

Press statement by the United Steelworkers of America (USWA)

Friday, September 26, 2003

Utah - Following a two day conference, nearly 100 trade union delegates representing tens of thousands of Rio Tinto plc/Ltd (NYSE: RTP), (RIO.L), (RIO.AX) workers in eight nations pledged their mutual solidarity and resolved to further strengthen their global network in order to bring Rio Tinto to justice.

The delegates, in a Solidarity Statement issued following the conference, committed to work in unity to negotiate an enforceable global agreement with Rio Tinto which requires that the company respect fundamental labor rights, other human rights and the environment.

They also expressed their outrage at Rio Tinto's "illegal and immoral" treatment of workers in Zimbabwe and demanded this behavior be immediately reversed. Finally, they committed to bolstering communications throughout the network and to continue jointly campaigning for fair treatment of workers by Rio Tinto at its facilities across the globe.

It was the fourth biennial conference of the ICEM Rio Tinto Global Union Network, a network of trade unionists representing a large fraction of UK and Australia based global mining concern Rio Tinto's workers in North America, South America, Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia. ICEM (International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers' Unions) is an international labor federation that represents 20 million union workers worldwide.

"We formed the ICEM Rio Tinto Global Union Network in 1997 after Rio Tinto began to take advantage of changes in Australian labor law and the globalization of capital in order to grossly undermine the rights of workers we represent," said John Maitland, President of ICEM and head of Australia based Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union.

"Through collaborating with other Network members, we soon learned that Rio Tinto was up to similar kinds of underhanded, antisocial antics around the globe. Holding these conferences and fulfilling commitments laid out in the Solidarity Statement advances the Network's struggle to end these antics and bring Rio Tinto to justice."

At the post-conference press conference, Network delegates stated that a theme of the conference was the fallacy of Rio Tinto's elaborate efforts to portray itself as socially responsible.

"Rio Tinto often throws a bone at communities living near sites where it wants to develop a mine in order to gain community consent," stated Kjell Hermansson, a representative of the Swedish Metal Workers Union. "Then the company packages this in its glossy brochures as the activities of a socially responsible corporation. However, Rio Tinto's impending shutdown of its Swedish facility where I work will devastate the surrounding small community, and the company's not throwing any bones. It seems Rio Tinto's only socially responsible when there's money to be made."

Network delegates also commented on Rio Tinto's ongoing behavior in Zimbabwe as wholly inconsistent with the company's claim that it behaves in a socially responsible manner. Stated Joseph Midzi, General Secretary of the Associated Mineworkers of Zimbabwe, "The callousness with which Rio Tinto treats workers in Zimbabwe is staggering. While Rio Tinto's workers in Zimbabwe are faced with astronomical inflation, the company seems hell-bent on not granting them living wages. They can barely afford basic commodities to feed their families!"

Added Midzi, "While much of Zimbabwe continues to be devastated by the HIV virus, Rio Tinto is reducing health care benefits and taking practically no measures to treat infected workers. We believe that the company has in fact illegally discharged workers on account of them being HIV positive."

Rio Tinto's hypersensitivity about its public image was also a theme of the conference. United Steelworkers of America (USWA) District 12 Director Terry Bonds claimed this hypersensitivity would guide Network actions.

"In order to bring Rio Tinto to justice, it's necessary to expose the ugly truth about the company," said Bonds. "That's why this Network is putting so much emphasis on bolstering our capacity to gather and share information. We will implement a system that enables us to strategically use our collective knowledge about all the inhumane, anti-worker and environmentally devastating actions this company is taking across the globe. We will become the whistleblowers of the world, and the company will be forced to deal with the consequences."

Bonds was nominated by John Maitland to replace Maitland as Chair of the ICEM Rio Tinto Global Union Network and was subsequently unanimously elected to this post.

Rosival Ferreira Araujo, President of Sindicato do Trabadores das Industrias Extrativis in Brazil, reported on what the Network has helped Brazilian Rio Tinto workers achieve. "We struggled long and hard for a national collective agreement with Rio Tinto. We needed one to counter the company's attempts to play its Brazilian workers off against each other in a race to the bottom. Until we became actively involved with the Network, Rio Tinto ignored our efforts."

"Following participation of Network members in our struggle, we achieved a national collective agreement at the beginning of 2002, which was then strengthened in 2003. It just goes to show what workers around the world can achieve through collaboration, even in the face of a vicious multinational corporation like Rio Tinto."

USWA and ICEM jointly hosted the conference in Salt Lake City, near Rio Tinto subsidiary Kennecott Utah Copper's operations. Kennecott workers, over a thousand of whom are represented by USWA and four other unions, have been in a bitter labor dispute with the company for nearly a year. Although the dispute seemed over in June when workers ratified a new collective bargaining agreement, it resumed two days later when Kennecott laid 122 of them off.

Throughout the dispute, USWA has participated in joint activities with Network members. USWA credits the Network with helping it to achieve the agreement at Kennecott.

According to USWA President Leo Gerard, "Until the dispute at Kennecott is resolved and after it is resolved, the Steelworkers will remain highly active in the ICEM Rio Tinto Global Union Network. We will redouble our efforts to build the Network and will do whatever we can to help our sisters and brothers employed by Rio Tinto around the world achieve justice and beat back the company's attempts to devastate their lives, families, communities and the environment."

Contact: Tom Johnson (773) 580-8388 Adam Lee (412) 562-2482


Wilson defends Rio Tinto's global operations

Sir Robert Wilson of Rio Tinto Visits the NWT - Rio Tinto Chairman Describes Present Day Mining Operations

CBC Special Report, September 24, 2003

CBC: Rio Tinto is the world's largest mining company [actually the second biggest - MAC], with operations on every continent. In the North West Territories of Canada (NWT) the company owns 60 percent of Diavik Diamond Mines. The chairman of Rio Tinto has been in the north this week on a farewell tour. Sir Robert Wilson joined the company in 1970. Last night, he sat down with reporter Julie Green to reflect on how the business of mining has changed and how Diavik is an example of the future.

GREEN: So, Robert, what can the world's largest mining company do for the communities in which it mines beyond providing jobs?

WILSON: Well, it's quite difficult to generalize an answer to that because communities are so different in one part of the world as compared with another. In a sense, it might be best to use the example here with the Diavik operation. I think what we can bring is a little more than just jobs. What we are hoping to be able to do is help develop community capacity so that when those mines close, as every mine must, we are leaving behind an ability to continue economic viability without the mine operation being there.

GREEN: Can you give me some specifics on how that might work?

WILSON: There are a number of joint ventures now that are primarily dedicated to servicing the Diavik mining operation, but there might be other operations, other commercial activities, in this area well after we've gone. There might be mining operations. There might be other activities in the Northwest Territories and these joint venture organizations will have the capability of servicing other economic activities the same way they service us.

GREEN: Do you have joint ventures of this kind in other operations of yours around the world?

WILSON: We do, but I would say they are probably relatively better developed here than in most parts of the world. That's partly because we entered into these sorts of discussions from the very early stages of consideration of how this might be developed. So the thinking of how it might relate to and contribute to local communities has been very much a core part of the ethos of Diavik's development in a way which we've done in other operations, but it's been more in an ad hoc fashion by and large. I think that's one reason why it's different here. Another reason why it's different is that the communities here are very well organized and they are well educated. So that means there is a head start in terms of being able to establish a partnership footing with these groups.

GREEN: When you talk about involvement with the local community, what kind of meaning does that have for environmental issues?

WILSON: First of all, the identification of what the key environmental issues are is partly a purely scientific engineering process, but also particularly in an area like this, where we are working with communities for whom the land is very much a core integral part of their own lifestyle, they can point us in the right direction where there are issues which are concerning them. We need to address those issues, of course.

GREEN: Do you find that that's the case elsewhere as well?

WILSON: Yes, although it might show itself in very different ways with different communities. But, yes, there is always the need for a dialogue with locals about the issues which they believe we need to address.

GREEN: Was it this way when you started with Rio Tinto 30-some years ago? Was there this kind of focus on involving the local communities in mining?

WILSON: No. There wasn't that focus at that stage. It was very much more piecemeal and individual issues of some managers. That's part of the reason why this industry -- I am not talking about Rio Tinto but the industry in general - has left behind a legacy and developed a bad reputation in terms of having created problems rather than resolved them. That's one of the things the industry is now telling its mine to address in a much more systematic way.

GREEN: What's motivating that change?

WILSON: I think an understanding on the part of the industry. It needs to be recognized as a good partner for the local community. Obviously there's a background to this too. There is a much greater societal awareness of environmental issues than there were 30 years ago, but putting that to one side, we are also in the industry much more aware today of the need to establish long-term sound relationships with the company understanding as best it can and respecting the cultural values of those communities.

GREEN: What kind of impact do these changes have on competitiveness and profitability within the mining sector?

WILSON: Well, it's very difficult, perhaps impossible, to quantify that in any precise way. I think it's more a matter of a belief of certain companies and certainly Rio Tinto, that this is the way an industry needs to operate in the future if it's going to operate satisfactorily and if it's going to mitigate some of the risks which otherwise actually undermine the viability of a business. So proper care and attention on environmental issues may cost money on an ongoing basis, but it also reduces the risk of a catastrophic closure because of environmental problems. The same applies incidentally to the relationships with other communities. If a company doesn't have world-based relationships, then that too can undermine an operation in terms of the frictions that can arise.

GREEN: Thanks very much for your time.

WILSON: Thank you.

CBC: Sir Robert Wilson is the chairman of Rio Tinto, the majority owner of Diavik Diamonds speaking with Julie Green.

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