Canadian Steelworkers are calling on the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to recast London 2012 gold medals because the supplier ‘disrespects Olympic values of fair play’.
One of the world’s largest industrial unions, the United Steelworkers (USW), is calling for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to drop multinational resource firm Rio Tinto as an official supplier of the 2012 London Games, because the company’s treatment of its own workers does not live up to the Olympic spirit.
The UK-based Rio Tinto is providing 99 per cent of the gold and other metals that are being cast into medals for victorious Olympic athletes.
The USW says the deal allows Rio Tinto to promote its association with the most prestigious athletic event in the world and implicitly endorses the company’s commitment to the Olympic values of ‘friendship, solidarity and fair play’.
The controversial mining giant is under scrutiny for a range of alleged environmental, human rights and labour violations at its operations around the world.
Most recently, the company announced plans at a profitable smelter in Quebec (Canada) to replace retiring employees with contract workers at half the wages and no benefits at all.
When employees refused to accept, Rio Tinto locked them out. The dispute has now gone on for over three months.
‘At those low wage levels, a worker in Quebec cannot support a family,’ said Steelworkers Quebec spokesperson Daniel Roy.
He said that the union is launching a global campaign to pressure the IOC to drop Rio Tinto as an Olympic supplier.
‘Locking out its workers in Quebec is a violation of Rio Tinto’s obligations to fair play under the Olympic Charter,’ Roy said.
He also said that the effort by Rio Tinto to drive down living wages at one of the most profitable aluminum smelters in the world ‘is a dangerous precedent for industrial workers and local families everywhere’.
‘Rio Tinto is not Olympic calibre in its behaviour toward its own workers and their families,’ says Ken Neumann, USW Canada’s National Director.
‘The company demands unrealistic concessions from employees, and locks them out when they don’t concede.
‘It pollutes the air and water in communities around the world,’ he alleged.
‘It has no place alongside the world’s greatest athletes – it’s time to get Rio Tinto off the Olympic podium.’
At Rio Tinto’s annual shareholder meeting in London today, April 19, workers, community members and environmentalists from around the world, will air their grievances in front of investors and announce the campaign around the Olympic Games.
They are also holding several other events in London related to the Olympic campaign this week.
Among the attendees will be workers from Rio Tinto’s enormous Utah mine, Mongolian workers and residents affected by Rio Tinto operations, and two Steelworkers locked out of the Rio Tinto Alcan aluminum smelter in the town of Alma in the Saguenay-Lac St. Jean region of Quebec.
The 780 workers were locked out on December 30 during a dispute over the company’s attempt to replace unionists with non-union, lower-paid sub-contractors.
On March 31, thousands demonstrated against the lockout, including labour leaders from five continents.
A flier about the Olympics campaign describes the Quebec lockout:
‘Security guards, forced the workers onto the street, without even giving those who had been exposed to beryllium the time to go through the decontamination procedure.
‘The workers are not demanding higher wages or enhanced benefits. Their concern is protecting jobs for future generations.’
The Steelworkers also lament Rio Tinto’s imminent closing of the Lynemouth aluminum smelter in northern England, which will result in between 300 and 500 lay-offs.
The union says the company should leave more time to find a buyer that would keep the plant open.
Analysts pointed at oversupply of aluminum worldwide and low prices, linked to the economic crisis.
Rio Tinto blamed environmental regulations to protect air quality and public health and a tax on climate change-causing carbon dioxide that kicks in in 2013.
Drexler said that given this global oversupply of aluminum, the Quebec lockout could actually be benefiting the company, as the decreased aluminum supply could help them keep market prices higher.
Rio Tinto annual meetings have been targets of shareholder activism – where people holding shares are speaking before other investors and company executives – for the past several years.
This year representatives will also attend from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where Rio Tinto subsidiary Kennecott is developing a controversial nickel mine called the Eagle Project, and Mongolia, where Rio Tinto is part owner of the massive Oyu Tolgoi gold and copper mine.
In 2010, trade unionists attended to speak out about the lockout of borax miners represented by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union at a California Rio Tinto operation.
Drexler said he thinks shareholder activism does make a difference in companies’ well-being and behaviour.
He noted that the Norwegian government pension fund divested from Rio Tinto in 2008 over alleged environmental destruction at its Grasberg mine in Indonesia, a joint venture with Freeport McMoran.
‘A company that inflicts reputational damage on itself eventually pays a price,’ Drexler said.
The union says the Quebec government and the Canadian government as a whole are also directly responsible for what occurs with the Quebec lockout, especially since the province is paying Rio Tinto for hydropower generated at its operation.
Drexler said: ‘The battle isn’t just against Rio Tinto, it’s against the governments that support these multinational companies.
‘They are allowing these abuses to occur by allowing them to sell power back to the public.
‘If you have government financing supporting a lockout, that’s an ideal situation for a greedy corporation.’
A press release from the United Steelworkers quoted General Secretary of the International Metalworkers’ Federation (IMF), Jyrki Raina, on this point: ‘Rio Tinto Alcan’s lockout is all the more reprehensible in that it is funded by public money as the result of a secret agreement between the Quebec government, Hydro-Québec and RTA (Rio Tinto Alcan).
‘In addition to no-interest loans over 30 years, subsidies and electricity at an extremely discounted rate, the government is paying this company $15 million each month to buy surplus electricity that Quebeckers don’t even need.
‘What a travesty!’ said Daniel Roy, the United Steelworkers’ Quebec Director.