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BHP workers tell investors about their reality

18 November, 2020IndustriALL Global Union and PIRC (Pensions & Investment Research Consultants Ltd.) hosted a virtual round table, bringing together BHP worker representatives with investors in the company to raise concerns over violations and mishandling of Covid-19.

The objective was to give voice to the concerns of workers at BHP operations in South America and to allow investors to engage in direct conversation with the workers. Major investors from the UK, France, Sweden and the Netherlands, as well as a number of key responsible investment service providers, participated.

Igor Díaz, president of IndustriALL affiliate SINTRACARBON, spoke about the situation at the Cerrejón coal mine in Colombia, jointly owned by BHP, AngloAmerican and Glencore, where workers have been on strike since late August.

Cerrejón has unilaterally – and illegally – imposed a schedule change that workers call the “shift of death”. It will lead to 12-hour workdays, increased working time, the elimination of benefits, the sacking of over 1,000 workers and serious impacts on workers’ health and family life. Far from driving productivity, the move threatens the well-being of miners and their communities.

Marcelo Franco, president of the workers’ union at BHP’s Cerro Colorado mine in Chile and head of the Coordinating Committee bringing together six BHP unions, discussed conditions at the company’s three owned assets in that country. Marcelo spoke of the mishandling of Covid-19 by BHP, with workers in many cases left to fend for themselves, isolated in squalid accommodations with insufficient food and medical attention or simply sent back to their families to be cared for.

The company took advantage of the government’s discrimination against workers with pre-existing conditions, leading to mass firings of these workers and their inability to find work elsewhere.

Marcelo Franco also underlined the company’s weakness in handling gender mainstreaming, including pushing male miners out to make room for female counterparts, and the lack of necessary adjustments made for women workers, such as adapted PPE for mining and appropriate health and safety conditions to protect women in the workplace.

Conditions for women workers at Cerrejón mine are also poor, with no childcare or breastfeeding facilities.

IndustriALL mining director Glen Mpufane said:

“BHP – along with AngloAmerican and Glencore – continues to claim that it cannot control what happens at Cerrejón, as it is only a part-owner. But they cannot reap the profits without taking any of the responsibility: as companies that have endorsed the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, they know that claims of “minority ownership” are no longer acceptable excuses for avoiding accountability. And while the other two MNCs have at least agreed to a dialogue with IndustriALL, BHP will not do even that.”

The round table touched on corporate governance and human rights-related risks to which BHP is exposing itself: namely, the disjuncture between its handling of Covid-19 in the global North versus the global South, and its extensive use of contract workers.

These workers have been particularly vulnerable during the pandemic, as they often cannot access sick leave or medical insurance, nor are they likely to speak up about health and safety at worksites due to the fear of losing their jobs.

The Australian Fair Work Commission recently threw out an appeal by BHP regarding its outsourcing model, Operations Services, and agreed with the CFMEU and several other IndustriALL affiliate unions that genuine agreement with the workforce had not been demonstrated and that the agreements may not pass the “better off overall test” compared with the industry award, as it is based on lower pay for the same work by contracted workers.

While the Australian unions had recourse because of a strong regulatory framework and judiciary, unions in the global South generally do not have access to remedy in the face of human rights abuses by foreign multinational corporations.

The main “ask” of investors at the round table was that they engage BHP on the concerns raised.

As Kemal Özkan, IndustriALL assistant general secretary said:

“The company must face the risks to which it is exposing its workforce, and address poor labour, environmental and governance practices at the South American assets that it either owns or co-owns. BHP has repeatedly refused to enter into direct dialogue with IndustriALL, thus closing off a major route to resolving problems locally.

“The question arises as to why the company is so willfully avoiding sitting down with workers and their representatives.”

Photo 1: Igor Díaz, president SINTRACARBON, Colombia, on the virtual round table.

Photo 2: Marcelo Franco, president of the workers’ union at BHP’s Cerro Colorado mine in Chile and head of the Coordinating Committee bringing together six BHP unions.