Oct 08 2007

Behind the Shining: Aluminum’s Dark Side

Workers Rights

Labor is the biggest cost in bauxite mining and the second biggest cost,

after energy, in aluminum smelters. Most of the large producers have tried

to quell efforts by their workers to organize and raise benefits.

In North America, aluminum smelter operators are at war with unionized

workers, represented by the United Steelworkers of America and the Canadian

Auto Workers. Aluminum corporations’ battles with its workers have

frequented other facilities across the globe. In 1999 and 2000, workers

were locked out at smelters operated by Kaiser, Southwire in the U.S.

Unrest also struck smelters in Germany, France, Australia, Romania,

Venezuela, and South Africa. (Stephen Johnston, “Aluminium,” Mining Annual

Review, March 2000)


In October 1974, according to Human Rights Watch, strikes at the Aluminium

Bahrain plant led the country’s leader, Amir Isa, to impose a state

security law that would allow the government to arrest and imprison for up

to three years without trial any person suspected of having ‘perpetrated

acts, delivered statements, exercised activities or… been involved in

contacts inside or outside the country, which are of a nature considered to

be in violation of the internal or external security of the country.'”

(Human Rights Watch/Middle East, “Routine Abuse, Routine Denial Civil

Rights and the Political Crisis in Bahrain,” June 1997)

More recently, human rights groups have sought protections for a 30 year

old Alba employee, Ahmed Khalil Ibrahim Hubail al-Kattab. On July 1, 1996,

Bahrain’s State Security Court sentenced him and two other men to death.

The men had pled not guilty to setting a fire that killed seven Bangladeshi

workers at a restaurant earlier in the year. Their attorneys produced more

than 50 witnesses who asserted that the men were innocent

Amnesty International issued an urgent appeal to the government. Amnesty

said the trial “fell far short of international standards for fair trial”

and feared “that their execution is imminent.” It said that prosecutors

relied “solely on written confessions they had made during the

interrogation. The organization fears that the defendants may have been

convicted on the basis of confessions extracted under torture.” (“Security

forces kill a women, the people of Bahrain practice their right of peaceful

civil resistance,” Voice of Bahrain homepage,

www.vob.org/english/news7.htm, July 1996; Amnesty International, press

release, July 23, 1996)


Billiton, wrote Leon Pretorius of the International Labour Resource and

Information Group, “has a history of conflict with worker organizations.”

(Leon Pretorius, “Regional integration and development in Southern Africa:

A case study of the MOZAL Project and its implications for workers,”

International Labour Resource and Information Group, March 2000)

In Nov. 1999, Billiton announced plans to lay off 5,000 workers from its

aluminum smelters in Richards Bay, South Africa. A month earlier, the

company successfully petitioned a court to ban a strike by the National

Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA). The union previously struck

in August 1999 after wage negotiations disintegrated. NUMSA threatened a

“massive strike” against Billiton’s “unilateral wage policy implementation”

(“Numsa plans strike over Billiton layoffs,” Business Day, Sept. 13, 2000;.

Mining Annual Review, March 2000)

Several times in 1998, workers at the Billiton-run Mozal smelter in

neighboring Mozambique staged strikes.(“Background on South African company

Billiton,” Midwest Treaty Network website)

“Although multinational corporations such as Billiton and Mitsubishi are

investing in other developing countries they keep their technology and

knowledge intensive activities in the more industrialized countries,” wrote

Pretorius, referring to the two corporate owners of the Mozal project.

“Very few if any of the skills and technology of producing Aluminium will

be transferred to Mozambicans. It appears that (these) companies have been

merely using Mozambique as a way of gaining access to tax benefits, cheap

infrastructure and low cost labor.”

The chairman of Mozal, Bob Barbour, claims that the consortium awarded 67

of its 110 contracts to Mozambican companies. Pretorius and others have

asserted that other companies are securing the most lucrative contracts,

including almost all of the infrastructure projects.

“Mozambique offers more flexible labor markets than South Africa,” observed

Pretorius. “There are less labor regulations, weaker and less militant

trade unions, as well as much lower wages. The promise for Mozal is that it

will lead to industrial development and create jobs in Mozambique. But many

people have asked what type of industrial development and for whose

benefit? An important part of development concerns the ownership and power

to access resources. How do the unemployed and women agricultural workers

who comprise the majority of the Mozambican workforce benefit from this


Pretorius noted that “the birth pangs of the … Mozal project have been

accompanied by worker strikes and protest action by indigenous women

entrepreneurs prevented from benefiting from the project.”

About 800 workers building the smelter went on strike from Sept. 28 to Oct.

1, 1998, demanding a 600 percent pay hike. They were earning about 24 U.S.

cents per hour. After the strike ended, the company agreed to only a

two-step, 20 percent raise for unskilled workers. (Pretorius)


Kaiser workers, members of the Steelworkers, walked out at the Alpart

bauxite facility in Jamaica and five U.S. locations for five days in 1996.

In Sept. 1998, 3,000 workers on strike again. The Steelworkers union

offered to return to work in Jan. 1999; however, Kaiser locked them out.

(Maxxam, Amendment No. 2 to Form S-3 filed with SEC, April 12, 1996; Mining

Annual Review, March 2000)

The union and the company finally reached a settlement in September 2000.

The new labor contract cut 540 jobs (out of 2,800) at five Kaiser

facilities. Shortly thereafter, Kaiser opted to keep its Washington state

smelters closed and profited from selling its power allocation on the open

market. (Kaiser press release, Feb. 7, 2001; Kaiser Aluminum & Chemical

Corp., Form 10-Q, filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Nov.

9, 2000)

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