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COMMENTARY · 8th May 2012
Merv Ritchie
As the Union contract between the Rio Tinto Alcan (RTA) and their workers comes to an end this July all indications are a settlement will be avoided. If rumours coming from the employees of RTA are to be believed the negotiations are not going well. A new revelation this week is regarding how both RTA and their prime contractor Bechtel have been negotiating separately with various Canadian Government offices to import foreign workers to perform duties on the Kitimat Modernization Project (KMP) site.

“Further, over the past several months, Bechtel and RTA have been working with government agencies to understand and establish a process to bring in Temporary Foreign Workers to the project in the event that there is a shortage of qualified craft workers in British Columbia and Canada. This process will benefit Contractors on the KMP that may experience labour shortages.” wrote Field Contracts Manager Dawn Perry on behalf of both Bechtel and RTA in a letter, dated April 30, 2012, to all contractors.

Another recent report from the Journal of Commerce details the work commencing on the second generation facility and tunnel at Kemano.

Colleen Nyce, spokesman for Rio Tinto Alcan (RTA) said currently approvals are needed from Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Transport Canada, under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act. These are expected to be in place in April.

“We then expect our own internal project approval, hopefully in May,” she said, via e-mail.

The report states the completion of Kemano is for back up purposes but in truth both generation facilities could be run at the same time if there was sufficient transmission capacity in the BC Hydro and Kemano power grid. At different times of the year (spring and fall) there would clearly be enough water to feed these hydro electric power generation turbines at full potential. The revenue guaranteed by the contract signed with BC Hydro would make this consideration a lucrative option for RTA.

A number of issues are raised by the spectre of these issues.

Is there any desire on the part of RTA to continue any function of the current smelter while the new one is being constructed? If not, is there any desire on the part of RTA to continue to employ their current hourly workers?

It has been reported if RTA is able to keep the current work force unemployed for 18 months or longer they all lose their job security status and RTA will be able to re employ only those they deem worthy. If none meet their “qualified craft workers” designation according to their current negotiations with the “government agencies” will the new staff all be foreign workers?

If the labour disruption provokes serious civil disobedience, will RTA cease all KMP activities and restrict their activities to power sales only?

Has RTA spent too much money already, committed themselves too deeply to the new smelter, ie: constructed facilities which could not be repurposed?

Meetings began last Friday and the letter suggests they will continue weekly to allow all contractors to take advantage of “Temporary Foreign Workers”. The discussions with the various “government agencies” appear to be quite advanced as the letter concludes with the following statement to ensure they attend these information sessions;

“Contractors are required to obtain approval prior to communication and/or submittal of any application to these organizations for the purpose of bringing Temporary Foreign Workers to the Project.”

RTA’s parent company has a long and controversial history of not respecting human rights and the collective bargaining process. Recently, at a Borax mine in California, Rio Tinto locked out the staff after decades and generations of families devoting their lives to their service. It was an acrimonious labour disruption, but was settled in three months with a six-year contract, which included a yearly 2.5 percent pay increase and protections against discrimination and favoritism for the 570 workers. Rio Tinto won the right to promote workers based on skills and performance as opposed to seniority-based promotions.

More disturbing however is the case of the Rio Tinto vs the residents of Bougainville.

Rio Tinto operated the world's largest open-pit copper mine in Bougainville. The plaintiffs allege that, when Bougainville natives began to oppose Rio Tinto's mining operations, Rio Tinto demanded an abrupt armed response, and quickly provided the military with attack helicopters and vehicles for use against the native population. Rio Tinto allegedly assisted with troop transport, munitions and housing, leading to massacres of thousands of Bougainvillians. The plaintiffs also allege that Rio Tinto also orchestrated and directed the military to blockade the island for nearly a decade, preventing medical and other necessities from reaching the population; one company executive is quoting as stating the goal of the blockade was to "starve the bastards out some more [so] they [would] come around." The blockade allegedly resulted in the deaths of many more Bougainvillians, including thousands of children. - The plaintiffs sued Rio Tinto for abetting war crimes and genocide. The Ninth Circuit ruled that these claims should go forward, finding sufficient allegations of conduct that violates international law. Read the judges ruling here.

It remains to be seen what will happen at Kitimat, BC. Is the company preparing for a long labour disruption with this effort to secure a foreign workforce? Is the Canadian government wittingly or unwittingly facilitating this? Is this the reason for the completely self contained work camp being constructed behind a security perimeter?