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Monday, Oct 3, 2011, 6:36 am

Namibian Uranium Miners vs. Rio Tinto

BY Kari Lydersen

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Namibian union uranium miners on strike against international mining giant Rio Tinto alleged in late September that a week into the strike, the company was violating mutually agreed upon conditions of the strike by hiring nonunion workers at its Rossing uranium mine. Rio Tinto says it is not hiring nonunion workers and is demanding written proof from the Namibian Miners Union.

Miners have demanded payments of $2,557 (USD) each to end the strike over union allegations of unfair bonus payments and other grievances. Rio Tinto has asked the country’s labor court to rule that the union’s complaints are not grounds for a strike.

The newspaper Informante reported:

Electricians, diesel mechanics, operators, general workers, and cleaners were shoulder-to-shoulder at the mine’s entrance, demanding their issues surrounding alleged unfair bonus practices be met. In the wake of last Friday [Sept. 23]’s rejection of the mediated agreement for an additional bonus pay-out, workers indicated to Informanté on Monday that they were willing to accept an immediate after-tax payout across the board to all striking workers of N$20,000 [Namibian dollars]. “Many of us work at the mine since the seventies. We want to work, but we strike as a result of the unfair treatment we received with the production bonus pay-outs,” the newspaper was told.

It wouldn’t seem like a significant imposition for a company with $14 billion in profits last year. And Rio Tinto is expecting booming profits worldwide as demand for copper and other commodities are expected to increase greatly in coming years – global copper demand alone is expected to grow 40 percent by 2020, according to the company.

In Australia, new iron ore projects by Rio Tinto and its competitor and sometimes-partner BHP Billiton will mean the creation of 90,000 jobs by 2015, according to the Sydney Morning Herald, with the possibility of employing up to half the country’s unemployed.

So large are the future staffing requirements that filling them could absorb almost half of Western Australia's unemployed. It is easy, therefore, to understand why the sector faces severe labour shortages.

But the situation isn’t all rosy for the multinational, which has long faced allegations of widespread environmental destruction and labor and human rights abuses in Africa, Asia and even the U.S.  While mining companies say Chinese demand for building and manufacturing products will continue to drive a mining boom, skeptics say a “double-dip recession” in Europe and the U.S. will suppress demand including in China just as the new mining projects are ramping up.

Meanwhile in Mongolia, Mozambique, Guinea and possibly other countries, Rio Tinto profits are threatened by government moves to nationalize a larger share of natural resources.

The Mongolian government is trying to revise a 2009 agreement that limits its ownership stake to 34 percent until 2039 in a massive undeveloped copper and gold mine majority-owned by a Rio Tinto partial subsidiary and partner, Ivanhoe. The Mongolian government is also trying to increase its stake in a coal mine owned by the U.S. coal company Peabody, with an infamous labor record of its own.

Foreign control of metals and other natural resources in African and other developing countries is increasingly seen as a new form of colonialism, wherein locals work for relatively low wages and often in grueling, repressive conditions for companies that take most of the profit from the resources and labor out of the country.

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Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based reporter, author and journalism instructor, leading the Social Justice & Investigative specialization in the graduate program at Northwestern University. She is the author of Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.

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