Resisting Rio Tinto

“We want jobs”, demanded seafarers at an occupation of Rio Tinto’s Brisbane offices on 27 March. About 80 union and community activists rallied outside the building to express solidarity with seafarers battling the global mining goliath.

After hearing speeches from Bob Carnegie, MUA Queensland branch secretary, and officials from other unions including the CFMEU and ETU, protesters occupied the foyer. Despite threats of arrest for trespassing, about 40 activists stood firm, refusing to leave until management agreed to meet workers’ representatives.

The occupation was in response to Rio Tinto reneging on a 2010 agreement to use Australian-flagged ships and Australian crews on 70 percent of their fleet carrying bauxite from Weipa in north Queensland to the port of Gladstone. The practice of using Australian-flagged ships on coastal shipping routes, known as cabotage, has been steadily stripped back over the years, leaving workers wide open to abuse.

The MUA estimates that around 70 percent of Rio Tinto’s fleet on the Weipa to Gladstone run operates under “flag of convenience” laws that allow ship owners to sidestep local employment standards. Crews on the ships that Rio Tinto use are from Burma, India or the Philippines and are paid $3 or $4 per hour – a fraction of the award wage for the job.

Rio Tinto and its subsidiaries have form in exploiting overseas crew. In 2015, the company chartered a ship on the Gladstone to Weipa run in which the crew were paid $2 a day and for two months not paid at all, leaving them destitute and short of food.

Bob Carnegie said that the union is protesting because “seafarers in this country demand work, not welfare … and are not going to be thrown on the scrap heap of life. … We’re not going to let the second largest mining company on this planet win this fight”.

He emphasised that the dispute was not a struggle between “Aussie workers” and overseas workers: “There is no division between an Aussie seafarer and a Burmese seafarer … or a Philippine seafarer. The enemy is Rio Tinto, the enemy is the ruling class”.

Eddie Bland, an organiser in the construction division of the CFMEU, said, “These people from overseas are being treated like slaves in our country and our waters … the overseas crew aren’t scabbing, they’re trying to make a living”.

Companies have been trying to avoid cabotage for years. In another prominent dispute that started in 2015, the Victorian branch of the MUA fought Alcoa’s decision to sack the crew of the Australian-flagged MV Portland and replace them with a crew sailing a ship under a flag of convenience.

Until it was sold for scrap, the Portland had carried alumina from Kwinana, WA, to Alcoa’s aluminium smelter in Portland, Victoria, for 28 years. For two months, the crew of the Portland refused orders to sail the vessel on a one-way journey to Singapore, where the tanker would be sold. Alcoa managed to get the tanker out of Australian waters only after the crew was hauled off in the dead of the night by dozens of security guards.

Across the country, seafarers are fighting to hold on to a vanishing industry. Harlan, a young trainee seafarer who had worked with Rio Tinto for more than two years and was promised employment at the completion of his training, has just been retrenched. Once he gained his qualifications, he was told there was no employment. Forty or fifty of his trainee colleagues have also been replaced by overseas crews being paid starvation wages.

“The industry will be dead in one to two years … and these skills are unique to the industry, so I can’t easily transfer to another industry”, Harlan said. “I’ll have to start all over again.”

The occupation was lively and vigorous, with workers chanting “The workers united will never be defeated”, emphasising the feeling of solidarity with the seafarers.

Michael Clifford, assistant secretary of the Queensland Council of Unions, told the crowd that Rio’s actions are “part of a broader agenda that we need to stand up to where the federal government is happy to sit back and let companies like Rio Tinto destroy job security and have people working for starvation wages”. Nobody disagreed.