World trade union network against Rio Tinto launched
By Norm Dixon, Green Left Weekly, Wed, 18 February 1998
Trade unions with members in the Rio Tinto corporation have launched a worldwide network to defend workers' pay and conditions within the giant mining company. The decision came after a three-day conference in Johannesburg from February 7, organised by the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers Unions (ICEM). Delegates from unions in 14 countries where Rio Tinto is active participated: the US, Britain, Canada, Norway, Portugal, Sweden, Turkey, India, Australia, Papua New Guinea, Brazil, Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa.
Rio Tinto is the world's biggest mining company. It is dual-listed in the UK and in Australia, and operates more than 60 mines in 40 countries. It employs some 51,000 people directly and many more through subcontractors. Its anti-union stance in many parts of the world has made it a target for ICEM action.
The conference voted to establish a network of trade unions to exchange information on matters such as conditions of work and pay, and social and environmental issues. The ICEM will allocate enough resources to ensure its long-term survival. The network will build a thorough knowledge of the company's operations and policies, and create a database to be shared with members of the network and the public.
The network plans to adopt a "concerted strategy" to ensure that Rio Tinto respects basic human and trade union rights. An action program will be drafted which will be implemented together with other international trade union bodies, community groups, environmentalists, churches and other progressive organisations which recognise the damaging impact of Rio Tinto's operations. Trade union actions taken at the local level will be backed by the global network.
Former Australian prime minister Bob Hawke, who said he was "dragged out of retirement" to spearhead the campaign, said the aim of the gathering was to make Rio Tinto "a good corporate citizen".
Delegates were incensed by the company's policy of discouraging trade unionism and entering into what it calls a "direct, two-party work relationship" with employees (i.e. individual contracts). Describing this phrase as "psycho-babble", Hawke told the press conference the company was trying to "eliminate trade unions ... They are mining our resources and undermining our trade union movement", he said.
The selection of Hawke as the campaign's figurehead surprised some delegates. It was Hawke's Labor government which paved the way for individual contracts in Australia, and smashed the Builders Labourers Federation and the airline pilots when they attempted to defy the "wage restraint" provisions of the ALP-ACTU Accord. It was also the Hawke Labor government which bankrolled the PNG government's war against the people of Bougainville, who had rebelled against the environmental devastation of the Rio Tinto-owned Panguna copper mine.
South Pacific Peoples Foundation