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Fighting for decent work in the global minerals industry

26 April, 2023Climate change calls for a historic transition to a low-carbon economy. Phasing out fossil fuels in favour of green energy is a major feature of that climate action, estimated to require ten times more electric vehicles and battery storage. This in turn depends on a consistent supply of minerals including cobalt, lithium, nickel and graphite, as the component elements of digital devices, screens and systems.  

The demand for these minerals has created a scramble by governments and multi-national companies to acquire deposits, mine and process them – with Chile, Australia and Democratic Republic of Congo important among the sources.

This scramble for minerals, and the mining involved, poses a wide range of environmental and labour rights issues for supply chains. The race to source these minerals comes with potentially severe environmental impacts, an increase in small-scale artisanal mining and outsourcing by multinationals to local contractors who may not be familiar with the OECD and other international environmental and safety standards, or respect workers’ rights.

Australian mining giant BHP declared 7,700 full time employees and 17,083 subcontractors in its South American operations. A fragmented workforce involving thousands of sub-contractors for mine-related activities like blasting, crushing, and transportation makes it much more difficult for workers to organize unions and collectively bargain for decent pay and safe working conditions.

Even after the collapse of the dam at the Brumadinho mine in Brazil that killed 270 people in 2019, BHP, which has a 50 per cent stake in the mine, ignored the recommendation of the National Contact Point in Brazil to provide evidence of a due diligence agreement with trade unions. 

But mining companies cannot ignore trade unions and the growing calls for responsible and sustainable mining forever. More and more countries are adopting due diligence legislation making large companies accountable for employment and environmental standards throughout their supply chain. This impacts not only the companies involved in mining but also the financial firms that invest in them, and the companies that make products using the minerals.

These pressures were reflected in the meeting of OECD governments on responsible business conduct earlier this year which agreed

“the indispensable role of minerals in achieving the transition to a low-carbon economy, and that responsible business conduct will be paramount in enabling a sustainable, diversified, and reliable supply in light of the increasing global demand.’’

Judith Kirton-Darling, Kemal Özkan, Liz Umlas and Blake Harwell.

Judith Kirton-Darling, Kemal Özkan, Liz Umlas and Blake Harwell

Against this backdrop, TUAC and IndustriALL Global Union organized a meeting for government officials and business representatives, kicking off the OECD Forum on Responsible Mineral Supply Chains.

“Meaningful dialogue with trade unions is how the OECD defines effective due diligence. Trade unions are here at the OECD to insist mining companies respect the OECD standards and ensure safe and decently paid work for everyone,”

said TUAC’s Blake Harwell.

“While the mineral intensity of the low carbon energy transition heralds another super cycle commodities boom, this is an opportunity to change the race to the bottom narrative that has characterized early boom cycles, to a race to the top narrative for workers and communities. The OECD due diligence standards offer a critical pathway towards the race to the top,”

said Kemal Özkan, IndustriALL assistant general secretary.

Judith Kirton-Darling, industriAll Europe deputy general secretary, said:

“IndustriAll Europe has long been calling for an active European industrial policy, of which critical raw materials are central in the green and digital transitions. Social conditionalities and mandatory human rights due diligence are fundamental – ensuring decent work is respected along global value chains! Legislative proposals are now on the table in Europe, but they must be strengthened to ensure responsible mining, processing, and recycling is promoted, as well as research and materials innovation. Workers must be at the heart of the Just Transition and must have a seat at every table. There should be nothing about us, without us.”