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Organizing along a changing minerals value chain

4 April, 2023The increased demand for critical metals and minerals needed for a clean energy transition to a low carbon future has motivated many multinational mining companies to diversify their operations, providing opportunities for unions to organize in the global value chains which now include converging industrial sectors in the automotive, energy, mining, and oil and gas.

Glen Mpufane, IndustriALL mining director, said: 

“Trade unions have an opportunity to increase unionization at South32. With the focus on ESG demands from mandatory supply chain due diligence legislation, low carbon transition minerals provides an opportunity to advance workers’ rights. This is an important shift. But for effective unionization to occur unions must have supply chains mapping strategies to guide them. This entails building data bases on the supply chains and trade union density.”

These were the key issues discussed during an online meeting on 23 March – Mapping South32’s global footprint, unionization, and global supply chains; sustainability and environmental social governance (ESG), accountability gap; and opportunities for the global network.

Dominic Lemieux, IndustriALL mining sector co-chair, said: 

“Energy transition is an opportunity for organizing. However, in Quebec, Canada, workers from blasting, crushing, and transportation are employed by different subcontractors, making it difficult to build workers solidarity at the mines. Additionally, contract workers are reluctant to act against the employers for fear of losing jobs.”

Similar precarious working conditions are found in Australian operations, although some gains have been made in labour law changes that may financially benefit workers. At some mines, unions are considering strike action to improve working conditions, especially amongst the subcontracted workers.

Greg Busson, Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining & Energy Union (CFMEU) district secretary, said: 

“Australian mining unions have carried out successful campaigns at South32, with a lot of struggles taking place behind the scenes. This led to improved relations with the employe, and the signing of collective bargaining agreements.” 

According to the International Energy Agency, the green energy transition will be intensive with a tenfold increase expected in the demand for electric vehicles and battery storage. The focus on ESG and mining companies’ adoption of human rights due diligence and sustainable mining standards provides impetus for unions to push for the respect of fundamental rights at work and decent work. Suppliers and contractors must adhere to these standards or risk being recipients of adverse sustainability reports.

Currently South32 mines alumina, aluminium, bauxite, copper, manganese, nickel, lead, silver, and zinc in Australia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mozambique, and South Africa. It also mines thermal coal for its refineries and smelters.