Thursday, April 15, 2010

From Bougainville to Boron, taking on RTZ

CAMPAIGNERS from Papua-New Guinea and neighbouring Bougainville island joined American and British trades unionists demonstrating this morning outside the annual shareholders' meeting of the Rio Tinto Zinc(RTZ) mining corporation in the Queen Elizabeth II hall in Westminster.

About 570 families at the tiny town of Boron, in California's Mojave desert, have been hit by RTZ's lock-out at the Borax mine since January 31 this year, which followed the workers' refusal to accept new terms and conditions that would turn good, regular jobs into temporary, part-time or outsourced work.

The multi-billion British-owned company has brought in replacement workers, to take the work of experienced miners, some of whom have 30 and 40 years service in the mine and processing plant. Whether this is good for the product reliability or safety in the mine is open to question. What is not is the company's anti-union, anti-labour attitude.

Not content with trying to starve the workers and their families into submission, and put them in fear of losing their homes, RTZ has hired armed guards in military-looking uniforms, and had helicopters flying overhead. Federal officials are investigating whether the company has broken laws.

"Rio Tinto, Shame! Shame!", people chanted on today's demonstration, waving flags of the Unite union, and holding placards in solidarity with the workers and families at Boron. The American trade unionists sang about "working in the desert, in the mine night and day, for a company that won't negotiate, over decent jobs and pay".

From the other side of the world, protesters from Papua and Bougainville island had brought pictures of the way RTZ metal mining operations destroyed and polluted their environment, felling trees, ripping open a mountainside, and pouring millions of tons of poisonous tailings (waste) into river systems. On Bougainville the company allegedly paid only "slave wages" to black workers, and eventually provoked a war in which thousands died. The company now faces a class action in US courts.

In west Papua, RTZ worked with Freeport-McMoran, a US corporation, which paid millions to the Indonesian military to ensure protection for its operations at the Grasberg mine. According to Indonesia's National Commission on Human Rights, in the 1990s Indonesian security forces indulged in "indiscriminate killings, torture and disappearances", as part of defending the mining companies and suppressing the Papuans' fight for freedom. Two years ago, Norway's government pension fund dropped RTZ from its portfolio because of concern over the Grasberg mine's working.

RTZ's activities worldwide keep generating controversy. It began mining uranium at Rossing in Namibia with a licence from the South African apartheid regime, and now there is concern over its possible export of uranium to Iran, as well as complaints about differential wages for white and black workers, and the use of a well-armed private army to maintain order.

In Colombia last month the constitutional court ordered a halt to Muriel Mining's Mande Norte copper mining project because of lack of consultation of local people. RTZ reportedly has a stake in this. In China, four RTZ executives were jailed in a corruption and commercial spying case.

Adding to the international character of today's demonstration, a visiting delegation of Belgian docks trade unionists from the port of Antwerp joined us later.

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