Quebec Lock-out Prompts Call for Olympic Boycott of Rio Tinto

April 26, 2012 Updated: October 1, 2015
Protesters outside the Rio Tinto AGM
Protesters demonstrate outside Rio Tinto's annual general meeting in London on April 19 against the company's sponsorship of the 2012 Olympic Games. Unions are urging the London 2012 Organizing Committee to drop Rio Tinto as its medals supplier and official sponsor due to an ongoing dispute with workers in Canada. (Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images)

Three of Australia’s largest unions have joined Canadian steelworkers in a global campaign to have mining giant Rio Tinto dropped as the official medals supplier for the London 2012 Olympics.

The Australian unions, which together represent over 400,000 blue-collar workers, are backing the “Off the Podium” campaign started by United Steelworkers (USW), Canada’s largest private-sector union, after a lockout of more than 750 workers at Rio Tinto’s plant in Alma, Quebec.

The campaign calls on the International Olympic Committee to remove Rio Tinto as an Olympics sponsor and supplier, and have the 4,700 gold, silver, and bronze medals made by Rio Tinto recast because of the company’s controversial labour and environmental record.

Rio Tinto employees in Alma were locked out January 1 after they refused to accept an agreement that would see an increase in the hiring of contract workers, which could drive down wages by as much as 50 percent.

“We believe that Rio Tinto’s involvement in the Olympics really violates the spirit of the Olympics, the sense of fair play, fair competition, ethics, and solidarity that the Olympics are supposed to represent,” says Joe Drexler, strategic campaigns director for USW.

Drexler says the call to boycott Rio Tinto is gaining momentum as the general secretaries of both the International Metal Workers Federation and the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers’ Unions, which represents 55 million workers, have written to the IOC and pledged to “take global action” if Rio Tinto is not dropped from the Olympics.

“If the IOC does not react, the two global federations will undertake some actions against the Olympic committee in Switzerland and will also engage in global days of action to call attention to Rio Tinto’s lockout of the workers in Alma, as well as their other human, labour rights, and environmental abuses throughout the world,” says Drexler.

UK MPs Express Concern

Last week, 15 U.K. Members of Parliament sponsored a House of Commons motion expressing concern that “successful Olympians will be presented with medals produced by multinational company Rio Tinto who have locked out their entire workforce in Alma, Quebec, without any serious consultation.”

Drexler says the USW, workers from the Alma plant, and supporters will be protesting at an IOC pre-Olympics executive meeting in Quebec City next month to urge the committee to hold Rio Tinto accountable to the community.

Rio Tinto did not respond to requests for comment on the lockout or the Off the Podium campaign, but instead referred The Epoch Times to a prepared statement quoting CEO Tom Albanese.

“Being ethically responsible is a thread that runs through everything we do. We aim to bring long-lasting positive change to the communities where we work, respecting human rights, bringing economic benefits, and looking after the environment,” Albanese said.

“We support London 2012’s commitment to delivering the most sustainable Games ever. It aligns with Rio Tinto’s commitment to sustainable development wherever we operate.”

‘Greenest Games to Date’

The London 2012 Organizing Committee has pledged to make 2012 the “greenest Games to date,” but sponsorship has been widely criticized by activists who say the top sponsors have some of the most controversial human rights and environmental records on the planet.

A campaign called “Greenwash Gold 2012” has been launched to protest the Games’ top sponsors—Dow Chemical, oil giant BP, and Rio Tinto.

All three companies have been linked to major environmental or human rights controversies, such as Dow’s infamous 1984 poison leak in Bhopal, India, that killed 20,000 people, and BP’s 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion that leaked 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

The greenwash campaign was launched by the London Mining Network, Bhopal Medical Appeal, and UK Tar Sands Network in hopes of raising awareness of what they say are the companies’ attempts to capitalize on the Olympics by boosting their public image and “greenwashing.”

“The ONLY reason such corporations bother to sponsor the Olympics (instead of spending their money cleaning up affected sites or investing in the environmental and social health of the communities they work in) is to divert the public’s attention away from their destructive practices,” reads a posting by organizers on the campaign website.

Campaign organizers will also be awarding their own gold, silver, and bronze medals during the Olympics to the companies that are “covering up the most environmental destruction and devastating the most communities while pretending to be a good corporate citizen by sponsoring the Olympic Games.”

In January, Meredith Alexander, a commissioner who monitored environmental practices for the Games, made headlines when she resigned from the sustainability committee to protest the controversial 2012 sponsors.