A “Poster Child for Corporate Malfeasance”

March 25th, 2010 by Phil Mattera

One of the cardinal criticisms of large corporations is that they put profits before people. That tendency has been on full display in the recent behavior of transnational mining giant Rio Tinto, which has shown little regard for the well-being not only of its unionized workers but also of a group of executives who found themselves on trial for their lives in China.

The China story began last July, when four company executives — including Stern Hu, a Chinese-born Australian citizen — were arrested and initially charged with bribery and stealing state secrets, the latter offense carrying a potential death penalty. The charges, which most Western observers saw as trumped up, were made during a time of increasing tension between Rio and the Chinese government, one of the company’s largest customers, especially for iron ore.

Earlier in the year, debt-ridden Rio had announced plans to sell an 18 percent stake in itself to Chinalco, the state-backed Chinese aluminum company, for about $20 billion. Faced with strong shareholder and political opposition, Rio abandoned the deal in June 2009. The arrests may have been retaliation by the Chinese for being denied easier access to Australia’s natural riches.

Although Rio claimed to be standing by its employees, the case did not curb the company’s appetite for doing business with the deep-pocketed Chinese. Rio continued to negotiate with Beijing on large-scale iron ore sales. It seems never to have occurred to the company to terminate those talks until its people were freed. In fact, only weeks after the arrests, Rio’s chief executive Tom Albanese was, as Canada’s Globe and Mail put it on August 21, “trying to repair his company’s troubled relationship with China.”

Before long, Rio was negotiating with Chinalco about participating in a copper and gold mining project in Mongolia. One thing apparently led to another. In March 2010 — after its still-imprisoned employees had been officially indicted and were about to go on trial — Rio announced that it and Chinalco would jointly develop an iron ore project in the West African country of Guinea.

When that trial began a couple of weeks later, the Rio managers admitted guilt, but not to the more serious charge of stealing trade secrets. Instead, they said they had engaged in bribery — but as recipients rather than payers. While the four defendants may have been guilty of some impropriety, it is likely that the admissions were a calculated move to gain a lighter sentence in a proceeding whose outcome was predetermined. And that was the case in large part because their employer decided that its business dealings were more important than demanding justice for its employees.

Rio is no more interested in justice when it comes to its operations outside China. It has been accused of human rights violations in countries such as Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. And it has a track record of exploiting mineworkers in poor countries such as Namibia and South Africa while busting unions in places such as Australia. Recently, Rio showed its anti-union colors again in the United States.

On January 31 its U.S. Borax subsidiary locked out more than 500 workers at its borate mine in Kern County, California. The workers, members of Local 30 of the International Longshore & Warehouse Union had the audacity of voting against company demands for extensive contract concessions. The company wasted no time busing in replacement workers.

In a press release blaming the union for the lockout, U.S. Borax complained that ILWU members earned much more than workers at the company’s main competitor Eti Maden. The release conveniently fails to mention that Eti Maden’s operations are in Turkey.

Also missing from the company’s statement is the fact that the biggest driver of demand for boron – a material used in products ranging from glass wool to LCD screens – is the Chinese market. If U.S. Borax busts the ILWU in a way that keeps down boron prices, then the ultimate beneficiary may be Rio Tinto’s friends in China.

It is no surprise that mining industry critic Danny Kennedy once wrote that Rio Tinto “could be a poster child for corporate malfeasance.”

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