Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

Global Union Heads for Indonesia for Freeport Worker Cause

  • IndustriALL is sending ‘solidarity mission’ to Jakarta
  • Local union says workers denied access to hospitals, banks

Representatives from some of the biggest unions in the world are heading to Jakarta to try to pressure Freeport-McMoRan Inc. to reinstate thousands of workers who have lost their jobs and, according to the local union, are now blocked from accessing hospitals, schools and banks.

Officials from Geneva-based IndustriALL Global Union and local unions are scheduled to meet with senior management from Freeport’s Indonesian unit, PT-FI, on Aug. 10, IndustriALL’s Adam Lee said by email.

Workers at Freeport’s flagship mine in Papua province downed tools on May 1 to protest layoffs and enforced furloughs that began during a government-imposed ban on the export of copper concentrate. In June, more than a month after exports had resumed, Freeport confirmed that 4,000 people, including 3,000 permanent workers and 1,000 subcontractors, had been “deemed to have resigned” after not showing up for work. Last month, the local union said about 5,000 workers will extend a strike until the end of August.

“There has not been a formal strike declared,” Freeport Chief Executive Officer Richard Adkerson told analysts during the second-quarter earnings call on July 25. “There were some workers that didn’t come to work. And unfortunately, after notification, some of them have lost their jobs.”

The labor dispute at Grasberg, the world’s second-biggest copper mine, has bolstered prices of copper, which is trading around the highest level since May 2015.

“It is simply not true that there is no strike,” IndustriALL Assistant General Secretary Kemal Ozkan said in an email after Adkerson’s comments. “There is an officially declared, legitimate strike, which is now entering its fourth month. Freeport is using the strike as an excuse to fire more than 4,000 workers and to undermine the union.”

The Phoenix-based company is using the stand-off to replace higher-paid permanent workers with contract positions, according to Abraham Tandi Datu, general secretary of the Chemical, Energy and Mines Workers Union, or CEMWU.

Benefit Allegations

Terminated workers and their families no longer have access to education or health care, including hospital treatment, Datu said. The union alleges that Freeport has cut off financial assistance that allows employees’ children to attend local schools and pressured banks to suspend worker bank accounts. Many of the workers who have lost their jobs have loans at local banks, Datu said by email.

A document obtained from CEMWU gives a more detailed break-down of the shrinking headcount at Grasberg. Since the beginning of the year, more than 4,300 jobs have been eliminated through furlough, contractor workforce reduction and voluntary separation. That’s in addition to 4,220 jobs lost as a result of worker protests, bringing the total headcount reduction above 8,000, the data show. As of July, the Grasberg workforce, including contractors, was roughly 25,000, according to the document.

Illegal Strike

Asked to comment on the headcount numbers and allegations that terminated workers can’t access hospitals, schools or banks, Freeport spokesman Eric Kinneberg referred to the company’s second-quarter earnings statement in which it said high absenteeism had hurt mining and milling rates and that the May strike was illegal. As a result, protesting workers were deemed to have “voluntarily resigned,” the company said.

“PT-FI is also taking steps to increase its workforce in order to restore normal operating rates, ” Freeport said at the time.

The company’s local unit has invested $81.5 million in infrastructure projects for three highland villages surrounding the mine, according to the company’s web page. It has funded construction of houses, schools, clinics, churches and air strips.

Meanwhile, more than 300 workers have also been fired at PT Smelting, in East Java, after participating in a January strike, according to IndustriALL. As at Grasberg, they have been told they have “voluntarily resigned,” the union says. The smelter processes copper concentrate from Grasberg. PT Smelting is majority-owned by Mitsubishi Materials Corp. and 25 percent owned by Freeport’s Indonesian unit.

Next week’s “solidarity mission” is in the process of confirming meetings with PT Smelting, the Indonesian Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources and the Indonesian Ministry of Manpower, Lee said. The delegation will include senior officials from the National Union of Mineworkers, The Australian Workers’ Union, United Steelworkers and the Netherlands Trade Union Confederation.

IndustriALL represents 50 million workers in the mining, energy and manufacturing sectors around the world, according to its website.

Freeport is in the process of renegotiating conditions of its long-term presence in Indonesia with the government. Earlier this week, Energy and Mineral Resources Minister Ignasius Jonan said the country will insist that local interests acquire a 51 percent state in PT-FI through divestment but will allow the miner to continue to operate the unit “until the Indonesian side is ready and professional.”

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