If You Don’t Know Where Minegolia Is Now, You Will Soon


by Andrew Casey / Working Life

Australian unions will lead a new global push against the big Australia-based multinational Rio Tinto with a focus on the mining giant’s poor behaviour in its worldwide activities.

Rio operates in 40 countries with more than 70,000 employees and is worth about $60 billion.

But the new global union campaign will put the spotlight on the bad behaviour of Rio Tinto in two key countries – Mongolia and Madagascar.

Global union campaigns are spreading.  Workers and their unions banding together to campaign as one, in a common fight against the same boss – whether they work in Sydney, Jakarta, Ulan Bator, Cape Town, Budapest, London, New York or Sao Paulo.

The aim?  To win global union agreements where multinationals:

•   accept and respect union organising;
•   maintain minimum global labour standards; and
•   agree to a fair collective agreement process.

After protests in South Africa last week mining unions expect to bring rallies to the streets of London and Melbourne in April and May this year – and onto the floor of Rio Tinto’s shareholders annual general meetings.

Australia in the badlands of resource investment

In Mongolia, Rio Tinto is the dominant mining giant – in a mineral-rich nation widely known in the resource world, only half jokingly, as Minegolia.

Minegolia is also the ‘badlands’ of resource investment.

The Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative  reports that Rio Tinto’s big Oyu Tolgoi project will supply one third of Mongolia’s GDP by 2020. Ongoing disputes about the profit split between the government and Rio has hurt the jobs of Mongolians – thousands of whom were sacked last year.

Anger over misbehaviour of resource companies sees foreigners regularly entangled in an opaque legal system, used by populist politicians to assuage local anger.

Minegolia should be of special interest to Australians. We play a big role in foreign investment in this small nation stuck between the giants of Russia and China.

The poor behaviour of Rio Tinto, as well as other Australian resource companies, has given Australia a bad reputation, particularly among ordinary Mongolians.

Human rights organisations have in the past called on the Australian government to monitor Australian investors, to ensure they do not harm Mongolia’s local communities. As many of the world’s mining giants call Australia home, Oxfam Australia has also been a vocal critic.

Now, after a two-year lead up period to allow for corporate investment research, mapping of potential allies and the development of an effective strategy IndustriALL Global Union – representing more than 50 million workers – is ready to join the battle.

“We have to find creative ways to regulate global capital in the interests of millions of workers and their families everywhere.”

– Andrew Vickers of the CFMEU

Last week, IndustriALL’s mining membership went out onto the streets in Cape Town, South Africa, during the world’s largest congress of mining sector corporations meeting at the Cape Town Convention Centre.

The 200-plus protesters were demanding Rio Tinto meet union workers to discuss their demands.

Rio Tinto – not too surprisingly – flatly refused to meet and discuss the demands of  the Rio Tinto Global Union Network.

Kemal Özkan, assistant general secretary of IndustriALL, told the Cape Town rally that the race to the bottom must stop.

“As Rio Tinto is generating enormous profits from its operations, workers are struggling with unsafe, precarious work.

“The benefits from the mines should be shared with everyone and not only used for increasing company profits. Today’s situation is unacceptable.”

Australian unions lead Rio Tinto Global Unions

The general secretary of the CFMEU’s Mining Division, Andrew Vickers, who chairs the Industriall Global Union’s Rio Tinto Global Union Network, knows from years of dealing with Rio Tinto that this is not going to be a quick and easy campaign.

Andrew Vickers said it was important for workers at Rio’s Australian operations to recognise the company’s anti-worker corporate practices in some of the world’s poorest countries.

He joked when talking about the new campaign to Working Life: ‘‘for my sins I’ve been given the job to lead this campaign of a dozen-plus unions from every point across the globe.”

The Rio Tinto Global Union Network is made up of unions from South Africa, Madagascar, Mozambique, Namibia, India, France, Netherlands, Indonesia, USA, Canada, Russia and Australia.

Andrew Vickers should know how hard this battle will be, because his union has a two decade long reputation of building global alliances to fight Rio Tinto in Australia and abroad.

Their campaigns have included working with non-labour NGOs from environmental, indigenous, human rights and development groups – as well as networking with shareholders to win the argument on the floor of Rio Tinto’s AGMs, for minimum labour standards.

That is why next stage of this campaign will use the big shareholders’ AGMs in London (mid-April) and Melbourne (early-May) to highlight and educate people about Rio Tinto’s poor record in Mongolia and Madagascar.

‘‘We will be telling Rio Tinto’s shareholders about the company’s especially awful behaviour in Africa in places like Madagascar, Mozambique and Namibia – not just Mongolia where we have a special interest.

“In Africa and in Asia, they are making their biggest profits off the back of poorly treated working people,”  Vickers told Working Life. “We’ve got some really awful examples to tell shareholders.”

These include:

•   environmental abuses and economic bullying of government and workers in Mongolia;
•   intimidation of workers and community displacement in Madagascar;
•   community displacement in Mozambique;
•   environmental issues, including large-scale radioactive tailings leakage in Namibia, a country where previously there were examples of serious violence against workers by Rio Tinto’s ‘security guards’.

No instant victories for Rio Tinto workers

Vickers and the other unions in the global alliance know that the win won’t come instantly.

But the CFMEU Mining Division – and the other big Australian union with a Rio Tinto presence, The Australian Workers’ Union – have worked with international allies before to win disputes with Rio Tinto in Australia and abroad.

And Vickers expects the Rio Tinto Global Union Network can do the same again.

“In an era of global capital we have to work globally and find creative ways to regulate global capital in the interests of millions of workers and their families everywhere,” he says.

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