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Mining unions prioritize building power along critical minerals supply chains

30 October, 2023The IndustriALL mining sector conducted a three-day-round of global meetings elaborating the main agenda items surrounding the industry. The last meeting on 26 October 2023 gave a particular strategic attention to critical raw materials as they are at the front edge of the energy transition with opportunities and challenges to workers and their unions.  

Bringing together trade union representatives from around 30 countries, the last meeting reached a common understanding that the mining of critical transition minerals (CTM) and critical raw materials (CRM), including cobalt, copper, lithium, nickel, and rare earth elements used in clean energy technologies for the manufacturing of batteries, identifies responsibility for trade unions to organize the workers in the newly emerged sectors along the supply chains.

As there is increasing demand for the materials for the energy transition, more investments are being done with more employment. In the meantime, in another segment of the mining industry, the coal industry is in the process of phase-out/down with millions of jobs expected to be lost by 2050, according to different sources.  
Participants stressed that these changes have had implications on workers’ and unions’ demand for a Just Transition for workers in the process to renewable energy. Unions want a Just Transition with the decent work concept of the International Labour Organization around job creation, fundamental rights at work, social protection, and social dialogue with a strong gender dimension, particularly around the ILO Convention 190 to end violence and harassment in the world of work.

On health and safety, over 200 workers continue to die per annum in mine accidents in Pakistan which is one of the countries that have not ratified ILO Convention 176 on safety and health in the mines. IndustriALL’s campaign, together with its affiliates, actively continues.
Environmental, social and governance (ESG) performances of the mining companies, according to the participants, must include the protection of community interests over a sustainable development approach. Human rights due diligence, as defined in the UN Guiding Principles on business and human rights, was also highlighted as important to CTM/CRM in securing fundamental workers’ rights, particularly freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining.

Furthermore, the global meetings discussed the convergence and interconnectedness of different industrial sectors through CTM/CRM value chains. Participants reported these convergences provide opportunities for the mining sector, particularly increasing union density. But there are possible risks for trade unions that come from job losses and violations of workers’ rights. Cases of violations by BHP, Cerrejon, Glencore, Prodeco, Rio Tinto, Vale, and Chinese multinational companies in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and Madagascar were cited.
The critical minerals agreement on battery manufacturing between the DRC and Zambia was mentioned as an example of where unions from the two countries could cooperate in organizing mineworkers. A study on transition minerals in the DRC, South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, identified the job creation potential in CTM/CRM.

The women in mining meeting on 24 October concluded that women in mining were underrepresented, poorly paid, faced discrimination, and were less likely to receive on the job training. There is a gender pay gap. The meeting recommended better working conditions, decent and quality jobs for women miners, an end to rampant sexual harassment, and the ratification and integration of ILO Convention 190 into national labour laws and workplace policies.

The coal mining unions global network meeting on 25 October whose theme was – climate change and the future of coal - urged coalminers through their trade unions to demand social dialogue and multistakeholder consultations to protect their interests during discussions to close coal mines. Additionally, climate financing by the World Bank and other international financial institutions must include social dialogue. The meeting heard about the preparations for COP28 and how unions will push for a Just Transition that protected labour interests.
Ben Davis from United Steelworkers of North America reported that laws were sometimes ineffective in addressing health and safety violations, wage discrimination, and subcontracting issues in CRM mining globally. However, in reference to the US, he said labour clauses in trade agreements were an effective tool. For example, the “rapid response labour mechanism” in the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement enabled workers to file complaints leading to potential trade sanctions when freedom of association and collective bargaining were violated. The mechanism also led to improved wages and working conditions.

“Affiliates in the mining sector need a CTM/CRM action plan with organizing and campaign strategies. This plan must include human rights due diligence and the promotion of social and environmental justice. Inclusive of women and young workers, the plan must be a strategy to build union power along the supply chain,”

said Lucineide Varjao Soares, IndustriALL sector co-chair.  
Dominic Lemieux, also sector co-chair emphasized:

“IndustriALL must review strategies and support members and communities on decarbonization challenges. Mining companies must include workers and communities in their decarbonization plans through social dialogue.”

Glen Mpufane, IndustriALL director for mining said:

“Focusing on national mining policy is important as CRM access is a major battlefield in the Global South. The challenge is how to achieve technology transfer and value addition in the supply chain for mineral processing as key to maximising benefits from mining for the developing countries. In Europe, there is need for a coordinated response to EU-level policies that include the Battery Alliance, EIT Raw Material Alliance, and EU level campaigning. Standard setting and labour-specific guidelines across the supply chain that links consumption to production are key demands for unions.”