Rio Tinto Turns Its Workers Into Lobbyists


Recently, Rio Tinto has been urging its staff to send messages and submissions in support of the company’s Mount Thorley Warkworth coal mine extension. This is a mine that threatens to literally engulf the tiny town of Bulga.

There have been a number of cases cited of petitions being passed around at work, at the beginning and end of shifts, with a strong helpful suggestion from management that workers might want to sign them.

While there are no doubt a good number of employees who might be willing to voice their support for their employer, given this was essentially a direction from an employer, it is hard to see how employees could say no, even if they had misgivings about the project.

I seriously doubt the Rio Tinto executives had a scripted response to any employee who said, “Actually, no boss I won’t sign – I think this expansion is too much and you should leave Bulga alone”.

They know, as does anyone who has been involved in industrial relations, that it would take a brave employee indeed to stand up to a corporate giant like Rio Tinto, at their worksite, when their job might be on the line.

It seems that message was heeded by its workers. Of the more than 1,000 submissions from individuals to the planning proposal to expand the mine, a large number are in favour, with many of them identifying themselves as currently working at the mine.

Buoyed by this "success", Rio Tinto have engaged in yet another public relations exercise and again have looked to their workers to do the job for them.

This followed the NSW Upper House supporting changes to a new planning law. One of those changes operated to amend a state-wide Mining Policy. This Mining Policy was recently changed by the pro-mining State government to make the economic benefit of a mine the primary consideration in the approval process.

That change virtually guarantees that large mines will be approved, regardless of their environmental or social impacts. The government had made the changes to the Mining SEPP to overcome a decision in the Land and Environment Court won by residents of Bulga against Rio Tinto’s Warkworth expansion.

When it was considering the new planning bill, this was an ideal opportunity for the NSW Upper House to reverse the government’s recent changes to the Mining Policy. The Upper House amendments were in fact moved by the Shooters Party, but supported by the Greens and the Opposition.

The amendments responded to the very clear wishes of many in the community, not least the residents of Bulga, who wanted to get some balance back into mining approvals in NSW.

What did Rio Tinto do? They sent another email to their staff, that included some “key points” that the company’s workers could include in making submission to cross-bench MPs to get them to change their position. They were:

  • I am a miner / I supply the mining industry and I'm part of the community where I live and bring up my family.
  • Mining is already a highly regulated industry that operates under some of the strictest environmental conditions in the world.
  • I am very concerned about calls to change the Planning Bill to make it even harder for mining in this state. That's bad for my job and other local jobs in my area.
  • The uncertainty in the planning system over the past two and a half years has been terrible for the economy. I am worried that my job could be affected if opponents of mining get their way.
  • I urge you to pass the Planning Bill without any amendments that would threaten my job and the economy.

This was a case of one of the world’s biggest miners putting words, and in large part highly misleading words, in their workers' mouths. Most of the claims are highly contested. Rio Tinto never offered anything like a fair or balanced summary for their workforce. In fact it is pretty clear they weren’t even attempting to.

As we saw from the Federal Election, with Clive Palmer pressuring his employees into supporting the Palmer United party, Rio Tinto is not alone in treating its workers this way. Judged by their actions, it seems that mining companies think they own their workforce, all the way from the mine site to the ballot box.

Recently the chief executive of the NSW Minerals Council, Stephen Galilee, wrote in the Newcastle Herald arguing that mine workers needed no coercion to make such submissions.

His argument is hollow when you have a multinational like Rio Tinto directing, or "encouraging" its workforce to make submissions – what they might have said in the absence of such pressure remains unknown.

Not only is this move by Rio Tinto an abuse of their workers' rights, it also disguises corporate lobbying as genuine community concerns. The result is that we get a distorted view of community opinion, generated by Rio Tinto’s economic clout.

While workers may be interested in their company continuing to operate and employ them, the interests of the workforce and the company are not one and the same. Whether it is wages or conditions, or even the environmental damage of a company’s operations, workers have a proud history of demanding better from their bosses.

The fact that the Labor Party’s response to Rio’s actions was a bland, “people have a right to lobby their Member of Parliament,” shows just how far they have strayed from their roots. It is only a short step from an employer directing their workers’ lobbying activities, to directing their votes.

We should all be concerned about corporations using their staff as de facto corporate lobbyists. The big mining companies already have substantial access to the corridors of power and the media. This new tactic further tips the balance in their favour, and away from local communities.

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