Trade unions accuse Rio Tinto of irresponsible operation

By Kasia Patel
Published: Thursday, 16 April 2015

Protesters gathered outside Rio Tinto’s AGM in London today to raise concerns about the company’s operations, particularly its treatment of employees and communities living in areas from which the mining giant sources its raw materials. Though the company has yet to respond to reports published by IndustriALL, it has previously refuted claims by the trade union regarding its safety records and staff treatment.

 rio tinto protest agm 2015
Protesters outside Rio Tinto's 2015 AGM

Investors arriving today at Rio Tinto’s annual general meeting today in London, UK, were faced by vocal criticism of the company’s mining practices from protestors gathered outside Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in Westminster.

IndustriALL Global Union, Unite the Union and London Mining Network brought together a number of trade unionists and communities affected by the mining giant’s operations to call for an end to Rio Tinto’s "poor treatment of workers, indigenous communities and the environment". 

Among the accusations made by protesters is the company’s anti-union behaviour, failures in worker health and safety, increased use of outsourced or temporary workers, poor relationships with communities, irresponsible political activity, failure to respect the rights of indigenous people and a lack of transparency.

Speaking to IM, Kemal Ozkan, assistant general secretary of IndustriALL Global Union and one of the protest organisers, said that many Rio Tinto investors do not know exactly what is going on at Rio Tinto operations and that the group was working to bring these issues to the forefront.

"We are demonstrating before the AGM (…) as what we have observed is what Rio Tinto claims to be is not the reality. What we have is the complete opposite to what they report in their documents. This is why IndustriALL Global Union has produced its own report this time called 'The Way it Really Works’," Ozkan said.

Although IndustriALL, an international trade union federation regrouping more than 50m workers in 143 countries in the manufacturing, energy and mining sectors, participated in protests at Rio’s AGM last year, Ozkan said that the company has continued to operate in the same manner without offering a clear response.

"After the protest, we will be going into the AGM and our network has agreed on a joint statement it will personally make to the chairman and CEO, expressing our discontent, anger and outrage about what is going on in Rio Tinto operations worldwide," Ozkan told IM.

Ozkan said that Rio Tinto had been singled out for its anti-worker arrogance as well as its damage to local communities and the environment.

"The company systematically fails on environmental, social and governance factors and our campaign will continue until Rio Tinto becomes the social actor it describes itself to be," Ozkan added.

Rio Tinto’s move

"Year after year at Rio Tinto's AGMs, representatives of communities across the world make clear their concerns about Rio Tinto's behaviour," Richard Solly, coordinator of the London Mining Network, said ahead of the protest.

"Year by year, the company thanks them for coming, says it respects their views, and offers dialogue. But the pace of actual improvement in the company's behaviour is glacial. It needs to walk its talk," Solly added.

Rio Tinto did not immediately respond when contacted by IM for comment, however the company has previously hit back at allegations made by IndustriALL.

In October 2014, Rio Tinto told IM that it was "disappointed" about unfounded allegations made by the trade union regarding its safety record across its operations ahead of a protest held on 7 October.

"In our view, it is misleading to misrepresent workers’ conditions or to call into question the value that Rio Tinto places on the health and safety of its employees," a spokesperson for the company told IM.

Aboriginal rights  

Rio Tinto is a leading producer of iron ore, an industry where falling prices are raising questions about the company’s strategy to ramp up production.

The company is also active in mineral sands markets, and in 2014 produced 1.44m tonnes titanium dioxide (TiO2), slightly below 1.5m tonne guidance for the year. For the fourth quarter, output was at 316,000 tonnes in 2014, down 12% year-on-year (y-o-y) and 13% quarter-on-quarter (q-o-q).

2014 borates production for the company 508,000 tonnes, a 3% y-o-y increase, while in Q4 2014, borates production of 123,000 tonnes was 1% up y-o-y, but 3% lower than the Q3 2014 output.

rio tinto protest agm 2015 
First Nations chiefs representing the rights of indigenous people in Canada

However, today the company was heavily criticised by activists for failing to respect the rights of aboriginal people in the locations from which it sources its raw materials.

Among the protestors were three First Nations chiefs representing the rights of indigenous people in Canada, looking to end a longstanding dispute between the Innu Nation in Quebec and Rio Tinto majority-owned mining company, IOC. 

"Rio Tinto began operating without consultation," a spokesperson representing the group told IM. "The Innu Chiefs are looking to negotiate an agreement with IOC as this is their land, or they would just like a meeting to be heard."

According to the group, IOC has reached impact and benefit agreements (IBAs) with other Canadian aboriginal groups but "not with those who hold ancestral title to the territory affected by mining activities".

The spokesperson added that mining activity carried out has devastated communities, having a real impact on the Innu people’s lives, with many families forcefully evicted from their native territory.

Rio Tinto was also accused of not respecting the rights of aboriginal people in Africa.

Speaking to IM, Ebenezer Zarondo, representing the Mineworkers Union of Namibia, said that Rio Tinto was mining in areas belonging to indigenous people and profiting from diamonds extracted and revenues earned without giving back to the community.

"The steps the company needs to take is that they need to realise that indigenous working groups must also be respected like real human beings, and Rio Tinto must also know that the precarious work is affecting the world, not necessarily in individual parts of the world," Zarondo said.

Precarious work

The protest was additionally attended by current or previous employees of Rio Tinto, some of which were represented by the United Steel Workers union, who have been campaigning against Rio Tinto since the company laid off 780 workers in Quebec in 2012.

rio tinto protest 
The United Steel Workers union has been campaigning against Rio Tinto since 2012

The union, which represents about 4,000 Rio Tinto workers in North America, was also campaigning for the safety of existing workers, and expressed concerns about the increase in precarious labour.

Ron Thomas, the union’s president, told IM: "We’re here because we’re looking for respect and to get our jobs back."

"We have been campaigning against Rio Tinto since [2012] to try and make them a better company, to try and make them act in a civilised way towards workers and communities," another spokesperson told IM. "They haven’t changed their attitude or behaviour and we will be here until they do."

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