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Making the Thematic Social Forum on Mining and Extractivism relevant for labour

Background

The Peoples Dialogue together with its allies are hosting a Thematic Social Forum on mining and extractivism. This Forum will take place in Johannesburg in November. Most of the partners of the PD are located in social movements and in communities affected by mining. A major motivation for hosting this Thematic Forum is in relation to how the intensification of mining has led to a process of dispossession, especially of poor communities living on or around the mines or prospective mining areas. The ecological disasters associated with mining operations are another major focus of the Forum. There is a strong sense that mining must be severely curtailed if we are to deal with the social and environmental consequences of the intensification of extractivism and engineer a transition to a low carbon development path. Some of our allies even make the call to “keep the coal in the hole, the oil in the soil”, in other words they are opposed to all mining. Their position puts them in potential conflict with trade unions organising mine workers and others in the extractive industries. A key task of the labour movement is to defend jobs and cannot be expected to give their support to strategies and proposals that would, in effect wipe out jobs and the income of their members. It is also worth noting, that in a country like South Africa and similarly for many others in Africa, five to ten dependents survive off the wage of an employed worker in the absence of a comprehensive welfare system. Hence, it is not possible to be agnostic to the prospect of job losses in any sector, not least the more labour intensive sectors like mining and the downstream industries dependent on mining.

Engaging with labour

The Thematic Forum on Mining and Extractivism, amongst other objectives must facilitate a dialogue between progressive movements concerned with the social, environmental and the economic impact of mining and with trade unions organising mine workers. It will be extremely unlikely that without the power of the labour movement, that it will be possible to ensure the radical transformation of the economy implied by the imperative of moving away from extractivism, i.e. to put an end to the “expropriation of nature,” halt runaway climate change and align economic, environment and social policies.

In fact, the invested interests in the extractive industries are doing their best to prevent mineworkers and other workers in the fossil fuel industries making alliances with affected communities and environmentalists. They use statements like “well, the climate people, they don't give a damn about the workers, the coal miners, and so forth." Hence, it is imperative that we do not fuel those notions by not considering how we can reach out to labour and involve them in the Thematic Social Forum.

The question then becomes how do we have such an engagement with labour, (assuming they will attend) without undermining community and social movement activists demanding the right to say no and community control over natural resources. Uniting and building solidarity between different communities and movements fighting mining and extractivism has to be the main priority of the Thematic Social Forum.

However, failure to recognise labour as a key constituency of the Forum will be a mistake. In this context, the Forum must give thought to the workers that draw a living from mining. In most cases, they don’t do this work because they have a predisposition towards mining. The work is extremely hazardous to workers and in most instances the pay and working conditions are appalling. There are no reliable global statistics for deaths in one of the world’s most dangerous jobs, but a Geneva-based trade unions federation estimates there are 12,000 fatalities per year. According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), while mining employs around 1% of the global labour force, it generates 8% of fatal accidents. Lung diseases such as silicosis affects hundreds of thousands of workers, leaving a good percentage of workers to die a slow and lonely death. And of course, there is an immediate link with the affected mining communities where many workers also live. It is mostly women who have to take on the burden for caring for the sick and injured.

If the Thematic Social Forum is going to lay foundations for effective programmes and campaigns in relation to mining and extractivism then it will be important to integrate issues of health and safety into the Forum and to use these as a means for engagement on the many other issues workers and community members have in common.

Moreover, a key characteristic of mining and other extractive industries is the super-exploitation of workers. The mining industries in Africa, Latin America and Asia are still based on super-exploitation underpinned by different forms of migrant labour. This has also shaped the territories and communities that have evolved around mining operations. There is every prospect that with the introduction of AI, robots and the use of greater levels of mechanisation, the exploitation of labour will be intensified not reliefed. Hence, it will be important for the Thematic Social Forum to include in its deliberations a discussion on super-exploitation as key part of the economics of mining and extractivism.

It is also important to remind ourselves, that the trade union movement has a long tradition of being a leading social force in advancing progressive causes and not just narrowly focused on wages and working conditions. The broader socialist movement, struggles for national liberation and other emancipatory causes would have been a shadow without the involvement and support of the labour movement. This is not to be oblivious to how the extreme bureaucratisation and professionalization of the trade union movement has blunted this legacy. However, this is equally applicable to the NGOs or non-profit sectors where extreme bureaucratisation has occurred through the professionalization and incorporation of the sector by the state and business.

Despite this, it is also worth noting significant sections of the labour movement have adopted progressive positions in relation to addressing runaway climate change and for a just transition. In this context, several unions in both the North and the South have adopted the perspectives and strategies of the climate jobs movement. This movement emphasise the huge potential of creating decent work for a very large number of workers by shifting to a low carbon development path. For example, to reduce emissions of greenhouse gasses in the electricity sector, requires the building of a renewable energy industry. Similarly to reduce emissions in transport requires the extension of the public transport sector to get polluting cars and trucks of the roads. In this scenario, it is important to think concretely through what could be the processes by which workers can be transitioned from dirty polluting industries to low carbon industries, necessary to facilitate the addressing of climate change.

Labour and the just transition

A key theme for discussion in the Forum must be on the just transition to a low carbon development path. It is possible to facilitate fruitful discussions on the economic alternatives that imply a shift away from the current mode based on the expropriation of nature through natural resource extraction. This is not a concern for communities and social movements alone. Workers, both at work and in the communities where they live are effected by the environmental and climate crises resulting from the extractivist mode of accumulation. How to undertake a shift from fossil-fuel development opens the issue of a just transition to a low carbon development path.

The labour movement is not agnostic to the climate and broader ecological crises. Several trade union movements have come out strongly in support of the need to cut emissions of greenhouse gasses. However, they correctly demand that workers and the poor more generally, should not be the ones that pay for the transition. Hence, the demand for a just transition.

Conclusion

It is possible to bring the labour movement into key discussions at the Thematic Social Forum if we can ensure space to discuss, health and safety issues, super-exploitation and the reproduction of cheap labour in mining and associated industries, just transition to a low carbon economy.

If this is to materialise we must be conscious of the lateness of the hour and an extraordinary effort of making relevant contacts, identifying important movements and facilitating some prior meetings to convince the labour movement of the importance of the issue.

In addition, it would be useful if an organised dialogue can take place during the Forum where members of the community and social movements campaigning against the affects of mining and for the right to say no! share their experiences, concerns and insights.

Brian Ashley, July 2018

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