As London 2012 draws near, and the world’s media goes into Olympics overdrive, we need to focus on some of the Games’ corporate suppliers and sponsors.
Much has been said about some of the front line sponsors, but last week both unions and environmental and human rights groups turned the spotlight on one of the less noticeable suppliers to the Games – the metals and mining giant Rio Tinto, who held their AGM at London’s Queen Elizabeth 2 Centre in Westminster.
Rio Tinto has a highly questionable record when it comes to its treatment of its global workforce, and has attracted the attention of environmental groups.
Some protestors at a demonstration outside the AGM wore gas masks to highlight the amount of air pollution being caused by Rio Tinto’s Bingham Canyon mine in Utah, USA, from which most of the metal for the medals will be sourced. Utah Moms For Clean Air burst black balloons, symbolising the deaths they claim were attributable to the company’s contribution to air pollution in the Salt Lake City area.
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The Free West Papua campaign flew West Papuan flags - an act which results in long prison sentences in Indonesian-occupied West Papua - to protest against Rio Tinto’s involvement in the Grasberg copper and gold mine, which has a long history of violating both land rights and the sacred sites of indigenous people.
The main protest on labour rights was led by Workers Uniting, the global union created by the United Steel Workers in the USA and Canada and the UK and Ireland’s Unite, supported by the International Chemical Workers, the International Metalworkers, the International Transport Federation and the Dutch union FNV.
They were supporting 780 workers at the company’s aluminum smelter in Alma, Quebec, Canada, who have been subjected to a four-month lock-out in a dispute over Rio Tinto’s plans to replace retiring employees with contract and agency workers. The company’s actions in locking out a workforce that refuses to be cowed by the multinational go completely against the Olympic values of friendship, solidarity and fair play.
Rio Tinto is providing 99% of the metal for the 2012 Olympic medals: the unions have now called for the International Olympic Committee to drop the company. A new web-based campaign, Off The Podium, was launched by Workers Uniting and the support groups.
USW and Unite officials and members attended the AGM to argue the case of the workers, and to question CEO Tom Albanese about the lock-out.
USW’s Guy Farrell, a union official from Quebec, took Albanese to task over worker abuses. The company chairman, Jan du Plessis, tried to shut down further hard questioning from unions, having ignored USW Local 9490 President Marc Maltais, only to be taken to task by International Chemical Workers official Tom Grinter for refusing the leader of the locked-out workers an opportunity to speak.
The Greenwash Gold 2012 campaign also nominated the company as one of the three worst corporate sponsors of the Olympics.
On top of that, Labour MP Jim Sheridan sponsored an early day motion on Rio Tinto’s record and the lock-out in Canada, raising the matter during Business Questions in the Commons with Sir George Young. The Leader of the House, who transparently knew nothing about the matter, promised to look into it.
This was global solidarity in action. Unions, joined by environmental and human rights groups, campaigned against a multinational giant which, despite treating its workers badly and ignoring the protests of local communities, will no doubt reap rich rewards for its association with the world’s greatest sporting event.
You can watch a webcast of today’s Rio Tinto AGM here; to register, click on Q&A: it’s worth it.