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The Road to Ruin? - Electric vehicles and workers’ rights abuses at DR Congo’s industrial cobalt mines

By staff - Rights and Accountability in Development (RAID) and the Centre d’Aide Juridico-Judiciaire (CAJJ), November 2021

Cobalt is everywhere. It is a silvery-blue mineral used in the rechargeable batteries that power our mobile phones, laptops and tablets, and in larger quantities, the electric vehicles that will soon dominate our roads. It is a strategic mineral in the plan to decarbonise and move away from fossil fuels towards renewable energy. Accelerating this switch is one of the priorities to tackle the climate crisis and industry experts forecast that electric vehicle sales will skyrocket in the next 10 years. This will require a dramatic increase in cobalt production.

The booming demand for cobalt has a dark side, however. The Democratic Republic of Congo, one of Africa’s poorest nations, holds the lion’s share of the world’s cobalt reserves. In 2020, 70% of the world’s cobalt was extracted from within its borders with tens of thousands of workers labouring in large-scale industrial mines to dig up the ore. Multinational mining companies that own many of Congo’s mines, eager to demonstrate their “green” and “responsible” credentials, say they produce “clean” and “sustainable” cobalt, free from human rights abuses, and that their operations contribute to good jobs and economic opportunities.

This report, based on extensive research over two years, paints a very different picture. It shows dire conditions for many Congolese workers in the industrial mines, often characterised by widespread exploitation and labour rights abuses. Many workers do not earn a “living wage” – the minimum remuneration to afford a decent standard of living – have little or no health provision, and far too often are subjected to excessive working hours, unsafe working conditions, degrading treatment, discrimination and racism.

In recent years attention has mainly focused on Congo’s artisanal mining sector, partly because of the risks of child labour it creates, whereas the conditions for workers in the large-scale industrial mines have gone largely unnoticed. This report examines workers’ rights at Congo’s industrial mines where the large majority of cobalt is coming from, producing some 80% of the cobalt exported from the country (in contrast to the 20% produced in artisanal mines).

The findings presented in this report are based on detailed research over 28 months by UK-based corporate watchdog Rights and Accountability in Development (RAID) and the Centre d’Aide Juridico- Judiciaire (CAJJ), a Congolese legal aid centre specialised in labour rights. The research team carried out extensive field research in and around Kolwezi, a mining town where many of Congo’s cobalt and copper mines are located. It is informed by 130 interviews of workers and former workers at five mining companies, as well as interviews with subcontractors, union representatives, lawyers, Congolese local authorities, medical staff and industry experts.

Read the text (PDF).

Just recovery and transition: IFIs must act to end the pandemic and achieve a sustainable future

By Global Unions - International Trade Union Confederation, October 29, 2021

The global labour movement has proposed comprehensive measures for the international financial institutions to support a just recovery and transition, including speeding-up production and distribution of vaccines, and putting social dialogue and labour rights at the centre of climate action. The statement calls for suspension or elimination of surcharges on IMF loans, which put an unfair burden on countries in crisis. Discussions moved forward but no decision was reached.

Read the text (PDF).

West Virginia IWW Commemorates Battle of Blair Mountain Centennial

By Amine Bit - Industrial Worker, October 20, 2021

Over Labor Day weekend, a series of events were held in West Virginia to commemorate the centennial of the “Battle of Blair Mountain,” the largest labor uprising in the history of the United States, which pitted local mine workers against mine owners, law enforcement, and even the US military in 1921. The commemoration was sponsored in part by the Industrial Workers of the World branch in West Virginia.

According to the Blair Centennial Project, the main organizer of the events, the aim of the commemoration was to “memorialize the brave men and women who fought for the civil rights of miners and their families” and to “celebrate the spirit of Blair Mountain that was passed on to us today.”

The centennial’s kickoff was held on Friday, September 3, and tabled by sponsors, including the West Virginia IWW. The event featured West Virginians speaking about their families’ connections to the Battle of Blair Mountain and the larger series of conflicts between mine workers and mine owners throughout the United States, known as the Mine Wars.

“One of the women, Wilma Steele, on the board for the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum, went to high school in Matewan, West Virginia, and didn’t learn an ounce about the history of the Mine Wars until she married into the United Mine Workers of America,” says Jonah Kone, a member of the West Virginia IWW. “They just don’t teach it in school here, and that’s intentional.”

The kickoff also featured other performers, centering around a concert of traditional Appalachian music.

The following day, organizers held a series of historical and artistic events. The day began with an event hosted by the West Virginia Association of Museums to consider the issue of museum neutrality in circumstances of historical injustice. There was also an IWW-themed event where union songs were played, along with recognition of recent IWW organizing campaigns in the area, such as at Coal River Mountain Watch.

Another event, entitled “The People’s Church,” was organized by a pastor whose goal is to bring back “Holler Gospel,” a form of religious observance that was once popular in the area. During the period of the Battle of Blair Mountain, much union support came from religious quarters, who used the Bible as justification for the labor movement and in direct defiance of “company churches.” Miners attended Holler Gospel services during lunch breaks and even signed union cards during religious events.

Although the Battle of Blair Mountain Centennial was meant to be commemorative, there was also a feeling of relevance for the future — that the events were more than just rumination on history.

“This event will serve as a catalyst for things to start happening one or two years from now,” says Kone. “There’s a lot of labor organizing happening within the United States.”

Electrification of vehicles in Canadian mines

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, September 8, 2021

Trade magazine Electric Autonomy has published a series titled BEV’s in Mining, and while clearly from an industry point of view, the articles provide a useful overview of the transformation being wrought by electrification of the mining industry in Canada. “Deep secrets: How Canada’s mining sector grabbed the global lead in mining electrification “ (Nov. 2020) introduces the topic of Battery Electric Vehicles and highlights the specific activities of mining majors GlencoreVale and Newmont, as well as Maclean Engineering, a Collingwood, Ontario-based equipment manufacturer. A related, brief article highlighted the use of Rokion-manufactured trucks at Vale Canada mining sites in Manitoba and Ontario. “Human capital: How BEVs in underground mining change the working environment for the better” was published in February 2021 – discussing the benefits for operators from less noise and vibration, cleaner air, and less fire risk underground. This healthier environment is linked to greater worker satisfaction and a competitive edge for employers to attract scarce talent. The article also states that “the ventilation system for an all-electric mine will operate at roughly 50 per cent of the cost of a diesel mine and cut greenhouse emissions per mine by 70 per cent, according to government data. The Canadian government estimates transitioning to electric could save 500 tonnes of CO2 emissions per vehicle, every year.”

Most recently, “There’s a skills shortage maintaining electric mining vehicles. One training program is trying to fix that” ( Aug. 25), which describes the new “ Industrial Battery Electric Vehicle Maintenance Course”, associated with Cambrian College’s research-oriented Centre for Smart Mining in Sudbury, and with Maclean Engineering. What the series does not discuss are the other labour market implications – including layoffs – from the automation of vehicles and other operations.

Facing Fossil Fuels’ Future: Challenges and Opportunities for Workers in Canada’s Energy and Labour Transitions

By Teika Newton and Jamie Kirkpatrick - Climate Action Network and BlueGreen Canada, September 2021

Canada has a climate plan but it does not lay out a plan for the future of oil and gas extraction that aligns with the goal to limit global warming to 1.5°C, leaving workers and communities with an uncertain future. The Canada Energy Regulator warns that the future of oil sands extraction, which makes up 62 percent of Canada’s oil output, is uncertain due to the projected drop in the future oil demand as the global pace of decarbonization increases.

Meanwhile, a study backed by the UN Environment Programme further states that global oil and gas output would have to decline by over one third by 2030 and over one half by 2040 to achieve the goal of limiting warming to 1.5°C. In early 2021, the International Energy Agency, one of the world’s foremost authorities on global energy forecasting, published a landmark report, Net Zero by 2050, in which the agency declared that oil and gas output should be constrained to existing operations in order to meet the 1.5°C temperature goals articulated in the Paris Agreement. Constraining Canadian oil and gas output to existing fields approximates a similar rate of phaseout to that proposed by the UNEP-backed report.

he Canadian oil and gas industry, including upstream activities, pipelines, and services, provides approximately 405,000 jobs - 167,000 direct jobs and 238,000 jobs across supply chains. In response to oil price crises, industry’s solution to protect profits has historically been to slash jobs while maintaining output. As a result the number of jobs per barrel of output has already fallen by 20% since 2000.

While oil and gas jobs have significantly better compensation and training provisions than most sectors in the economy, these jobs are also somewhat more precarious and have higher health and safety risks. Union density is higher but is also falling at a more rapid rate than in oth-er industries.8 Finally, automation is projected to threaten between 33%-53% of Canadian oil and gas jobs by 2040.

Read the text (PDF).

Our Existence is Our Resistance: Mining and Resistance on the Island of Ireland

By Lydia Sullivan - Yes to Life, No to Mining, September 2021

This report from Yes to Life, No to Mining Network (YLNM) explores how and why many nations – and the mining industry – are re-framing mining as a solution to climate change in order to facilitate domestic extraction of so-called ‘strategic’, ‘critical’ and ‘transition’ minerals required for renewable energy, military and digital technologies. 

This analysis of geological and permitting data shows that a staggering 27% of the Republic of Ireland and 25% of Northern Ireland are now under concession for mining.

YLNM’s new research examines state and corporate claims that mining in Europe represents a gold standard of regulation and corporate practice that justifies creating new mining sacrifice zones in the name of climate action.

Without exception, the authors – in all nations – report a vast gap between this rhetoric and the realities of mining at Europe’s new extractive frontiers, highlighting systemic rights violations and ecological harm.

Read the text (PDF).

A Green Shift? Mining and Resistance in Fennoscandia, Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Sápmi

Mirko Nikolic, Editor, et. al. - Yes to Life, No to Mining, September 2021

This report from Yes to Life, No to Mining Network (YLNM) explores how and why many nations – and the mining industry – are re-framing mining as a solution to climate change in order to facilitate domestic extraction of so-called ‘strategic’, ‘critical’ and ‘transition’ minerals required for renewable energy, military and digital technologies. 

Finnish, Norwegian and Swedish authorities have granted concessions for tens of thousands of hectares of land, with mining pressure increasing particularly dramatically in Sápmi – the home territory of the Indigenous Sámi Peoples. 

YLNM’s new research examines state and corporate claims that mining in Europe represents a gold standard of regulation and corporate practice that justifies creating new mining sacrifice zones in the name of climate action.

Without exception, the authors – in all nations – report a vast gap between this rhetoric and the realities of mining at Europe’s new extractive frontiers, highlighting systemic rights violations and ecological harm.

Read the text (PDF).

Climate Jobs Illinois Applauds Senate Passage of Clean Energy Legislation to Create Thousands of Union Jobs, put State on Path to be 100% Carbon Free by 2045

By Staff - Climate Jobs Illinois, September 2021

Labor coalition urges Gov. Pritzker to sign bill immediately

Legislation sets national precedent for labor standards on clean energy projects, expands job and apprenticeships for Black and Latinx communities

UPDATE: Governor Pritzker signed this bill into law.

Springfield, Ill. — Labor coalition Climate Jobs Illinois (CJI) praised the Illinois Senate’s passage of historic legislation to move Illinois to a carbon-free economy by 2045 and called on Gov. Pritzker to sign SB2408 immediately to get thousands of union members and new apprentices from Black and Latinx communities to work building the state’s clean energy infrastructure of the future.

CJI Executive Director Joe Duffy issued the following statement after the Senate vote:

“We commend our partners in the Senate for their steadfast leadership and their commitment to getting this bill over the finish line. What this legislation proves is that we don’t have to choose between jobs and a cleaner, fairer future. We can do both.

With this landmark legislation, we will build the clean energy economy of the future—powered by union jobs—to reverse generations of carbon emissions and build a pathway to the middle class for new generations of highly trained workers from historically disinvested communities. We will justly transition from fossil fuels and raise the bar on transparency and accountability for utilities and energy developers in the greater interest of ratepayers and consumers.

This bill is the most pro-worker, pro-climate legislation in the country and will establish Illinois as a leader in fighting the climate crisis. The urgent need for bold climate action cannot wait any longer, and we can’t wait to get to work building a cleaner, fairer future for Illinois. We urge Gov. Pritzker to immediately sign this legislation.”

SB 2408 sets the strongest clean energy labor standards in the country and promises to raise the bar for other states seeking to enact new labor and employment policies for building and maintaining clean energy developments.

The bill will create thousands of new clean energy union jobs, expand union apprenticeships for Black and Latinx communities, increase energy efficiency for public schools and safeguard thousands of union workers at the state’s nuclear plants that currently generate the bulk of Illinois’ zero-emissions energy.

One Million Rounds: The Battle of Blair Mountain

By Vince Ceraso - The Socialist, August 29, 2021

When you think of violent labor disputes, which come to mind? For some, it may be the infamous 1886 Haymarket Affair, 1912 Lawrence textile strike (famously known as Bread & Roses), 1894 Pullman Strike, or something as modern as the 1991 Justice for Janitors police riot. But not many will recall the Battle of Blair Mountain, a week-long civil war that took place in West Virginia during the late summer of 1921. Some 13,000 mineworkers took on 3,000 law enforcement officials, military personnel, and the usual local scabs. Rather than take oppression sitting down, these miners put on their hard hats and geared up for war. However, despite the numbers, the miners suffered a crushing defeat and what resulted was the near collapse of the United Mineworkers of America. But how did it all begin?

In the spring of 1912, West Virginian mineworkers, who all lived in small towns near their respective coal fields, attempted to negotiate contracts with the mining companies to give them higher pay raises and union dues that would be automatic. As you might expect, negotiations fell through, resulting in 7,500 workers going on strike throughout West Virginia. Even local supporters who were not mineworkers joined in. This caught the unwanted attention of the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency, a private police force that was called to the task of using brutality, fear, and intimidation to break up strikes. To really send the message, the agents began evicting miners from their homes, for unionizing with the UMWA.

Eventually, Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, co-founder of the revolutionary Industrial Workers of the World, joined the strikers, but was later arrested for her involvement in the Paint Creek-Cabin Creek strike of 1912. In the early months of the year-long said strike, the miners issued their own declaration of war against the West Virginian government. Several instances of guerilla-style conflicts began to explode in Kanawha County, WV. Things got so bad that WV Governor William E. Glasscock placed the region under martial law. After a year of bloody combat, more than 50 people were reported dead. The Paint Creek-Creek Cabin strike was the beginning of a 9-year labor conflict, now famously referred to as the West Virginia Mine Wars.

Fast-forward to 1920. The Baldwin-Felts agents were at it again, ransacking homes and evicting miners and their families at the Pocahontas Coalfield in the town of Matewan in Mingo County, West Virginia. This time around, they came face to face with Sid Hatfield, the Matewan police chief and beloved labor organizer. Unlike the vast majority of cops in West Virginia, Chief Hatfield was very outspokenly pro-union, using his position of authority to protect striking workers. He confronted the Baldwin-Felts agents and threatened to arrest them, prompting the agents to brag about their own arrest warrants against Hatfield.

Over the years, the circumstances of what happened next have been debated, but according to official court transcripts published in David Alan Corbin’s Gun Thugs, Rednecks & Radicals: A Documentary History of the West Virginia Mine Wars, an eyewitness testified that Cabell Testerman, the mayor of Matewan, said outright that the detectives’ warrants were “bogus,” triggering an angry Albert Felts, one of the heads of the Baldwin-Felts agency, to pull a firearm from his briefcase and shoot the mayor, who died of his wounds minutes later. Immediately after, Hatfield began firing, and a firefight between him and the agents ensued. When the dust settled, one miner, an innocent bystander, seven Baldwin-Felts agents and Mayor Testerman lay dead, while several other townsfolk were wounded in the crossfire.

In the Coal Mines, Workers Are Dying to Make a Living: Mining companies increasingly rely on cheaper contractors who face longer hours and higher risk of accidents

By Kari Lydersen - In These Times, August 18, 2021

Trebr Lenich always called his mother before his drive home from overnight shifts at Mine No. 1, operated by Hamilton County Coal in Hamilton County, Ill. The call she answered the morning of Aug. 14, 2017, worried her. 

“He said, ​‘Mom, I am just so exhausted, so wore out,’ ” Teresa Lenich says. 

Her son routinely worked long hours on consecutive days. That day, he never made it home.

Coworkers following Trebr said his driving was erratic and suspected he was falling asleep, Teresa says. Heading back to the West Frankfort home he shared with his parents, girlfriend and baby daughter, Trebr drove into a ditch and hit an embankment. According to the sheriff’s report, his engine then caught fire. 

Like many young miners, Trebr was employed through a contracting company that provides temporary workers for mines with no promise that they’ll be hired on permanently.

This staffing structure — and the disappearance of labor unions from Illinois mines — has made work less safe and more grueling for miners, according to advocates and multiple studies. Without job security, temporary workers are reluctant to complain about potentially unsafe conditions (including long work hours) and to report accidents. And because temporary workers may have inadequate experience in a particular mine, they might not understand that mine’s specific risks.

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