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Workers fear job losses at Glencore cobalt mine

14 August, 2019Swiss mining and commodity trading company Glencore has announced that it will put Mutanda Mine in Kolwezi, Democratic Republic of Congo, under care and maintenance from 2020-2022, causing fear and uncertainty to over 7,000 mineworkers who might lose their jobs if the mine closes.

A letter to workers from management stated that the decision to mothball the mine was caused by a drop in cobalt prices on the international market, expensive cost of inputs especially sulphuric acid and increased taxes to mining companies following the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) government’s recent amendments to the country’s Mining Code. According to the letter, these factors reduced the economic viability of the mine.

Cobalt prices peaked at US$43 a pound in March 2018 before collapsing to US$11.80 in July, but Glencore’s announcement on Mutanda has seen the prices begin to recover. Cobalt, a biproduct of copper and nickel in mining activities, is used in the manufacture of smartphone and electric vehicle batteries. The DRC produces over 60 per cent of the global cobalt.

At a meeting with workers, management said Mutanda Mine is not shutting down. Neither is Glencore selling the mine nor leaving the DRC. Management also said workers and their families will continue to enjoy benefits from a healthcare provider and that no jobs will be lost during the two years.

However, IndustriALL Global Union affiliates, Secretariat des Syndicats de IndustriALL (CSC) and Travailleurs des Mines, Metallurgies, Energie, Chimie et Industries Connexes (TUMEC) which have members at Mutanda Mine, say the matter is urgent.

Isaac Kiki, chairperson of IndustriALL Lualaba Province, a committee of IndustriALL affiliates, says:

"This is a serious situation which requires us to understand what the law says about the Glencore decision. As trade unions we must use our knowledge and experience to begin strategizing and preparing for negotiating now, so that we are not caught unawares."

Industriall echoes the sentiments of its affiliates in the DRC. In response to the worrying developments, IndustriALL Global Union demanded a priori consultation, consistent with the spirit of the global dialogue agreed with Glencore.

Glen Mpufane, IndustriALL director of mining, says:

"The livelihoods of workers should always be a priority when a mine is put on care and maintenance. The risk from demand and supply fluctuations on the cobalt market can be managed without sacrificing mine workers jobs. It is important for Glencore to keep its promise not to retrench the workers, and to find ways to keep the Mutanda Mine operational."

Glencore employs 158,000 workers globally, with 57,000 in Southern Africa.