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Mining unions fight back as commodities crisis hits

2 June, 2016Representatives from mineworkers’ unions across the world met in Leipzig, Germany from 30 May to 1 June for IndustriALL’s World Mining and DGOJP Conference, hosted by German Mining, Chemical and Energy Workers’ Union (IG BCE).

110 representatives from 50 unions in 32 countries from all the continents met for the conference of the Mining and Diamond, Gems, Ornament, and Jewelry Production (DGOJP) section. A major focus of the conference was the effect of the global commodities crisis on the mining industry.
Speaking at the opening, IndustriALL assistant general secretary Kemal Özkan said:
“The 2008 financial crisis was followed by a commodities boom, lead by Chinese demand, which lead to irresponsible, debt-fueled boom in mining expansion.
“Now there has been a commodities crash, and a crisis of profitability. Mining companies are desperately looking to cut costs.
“The result is that thousands of jobs have been lost, there has been a increase in outsourcing, health and safety measures have been cut, and pressure on the environment and local communities has increased.
We need to build union power as a response, so that we can create a safe, sustainable mining industry.”
IndustriALL’s director for the sector, Glen Mpufane, gave a detailed overview of the state of the industry, and what union priorities need to be.
“The mining industry walks away from the problems it creates”, he said.
“Environmental catastrophe, broken communities. It externalizes. Mining companies have always behaved this way, but the commodities crisis has made it worse. This is catastrophic for mineworkers, the environment and communities.
“We need coordinated global union action to confront these mining companies effectively, and that is what we will achieve through this conference.”
The conference featured a series of panel discussions, followed by the development and adoption of an action plan, and the election of co-chairs.
In a panel discussion on the effects of the commodities crisis, Lú Varjão of CNQ-CUT in Brazil spoke about the collapse of the Bento Rodrigues dam in November 2015. This iron ore tailings dam on a mine owned by BHP Billiton and Vale, flooded the Mariana valley, killing 19 people and contaminating the river basin. It will take decades to recover.
The companies had been warned years previously that the mine was structurally unsafe, but took no action.
The panel on sustainability and climate change featured passionate debates about balancing the need to protect jobs with the reality of the climate crisis.
“This isn’t a question of climate versus jobs,” said sustainability director Brian Kohler. “This is about climate and jobs.”
German affiliate the IG BCE shared their experiences of the move from coal with social protection, and representatives stressed that Just Transition needs to create quality jobs.
"Just transition means well paying jobs, not precarious jobs, not jobs that people feel ashamed of doing,” said Andrew Vickers of the CFMEU in Australia.
There was a major focus on the campaign to ratify ILO Convention 176 on Safety and Health in Mines. Steve Hunt of Workers’ Uniting North America recalled that he had been part of the Workers’ Group that negotiated C176 in 1995. “I am shocked at the situation today. Only 31 countries have ratified it, and miners are dying.”
There has been a tremendous growth in the use of precarious work, with some companies – notably BHP Billiton – employing more contractors than direct, permanent employees.

“Mining companies are becoming like textile companies”, said IndustriALL precarious work coordinator Armelle Seby. “They are global brands that outsource much of their work.”
The conference resolved that it is essential to build union power, both by strengthening local unions, and building global networks.
“We need to build an organizing culture in our unions”, said campaigns director Adam Lee. “But it is equally important to increase the activism and solidarity of our members. We can’t win with a passive membership.”
Representatives argued for unity in action. Where there is more than one union organizing in the sector, it is essential that they coordinate their campaigns.
The conference also recognized the importance of global company networks to confront global capital and build campaigns targeting mining multinationals. The progress made in the Rio Tinto campaign lead to the launch of a global union network for BHP Billiton.
Andrew Vickers from CFMEU Mining & Energy of Australia, and Lucineide Varjão Soares (Lú) from CNQ-CUT of Brazil, were elected as co-chairs of the section. The conference voted unanimously to adopt an action plan which contains a detailed strategy for transforming the industry. The delegates also endorsed a unanimous resolution to Spanish miners over the recent announcement made the Spanish government to stop financial aid and close down pits by 2018.
Around the World Conference, some side events took place. Trade unions representing workers at the operations at BHP Billiton came together before the conference, and agreed to reinforce union networking at this giant mining multinational. The BHP Billiton network will be meeting later this year. Likewise, on the basis of the conference resolution, union representatives of the Diamond, Gems, Ornament, and Jewelry Production sub-sector met after the Conference and decided to intensify IndustriALL’s activities in the period to come on a concrete plan of action.
“Our mining sector affiliates have again showed their firm determination for international solidarity”, said Kemal Özkan.
“IndustriALL Global Union will continue to champion in defending and advancing rights and interests of miners worldwide.”