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Issue 574, 5 October 2007 - All unions should back the Greens

PNG gold miners strike against Australian corporation

OVER 1500 gold miners went on strike in late August and early September at the Australian-owned Lihir gold mine in Papua New Guinea.

The mine is one of the largest in world with over 800,000 ounces expected to be mined this year. It is dug into a long-dormant volcano on Lihir Island, 700km northeast of the capital, Port Moresby.

Lihir management said they were not told the reasons for the strike. But, according to the PNG Post-Courier, strikers raised the following issues:

  • Employment of former Placer Pacific employees at the Misima and Porgera gold mines;
  • Delays in implementing a localisation program despite assurances by CEO Arthur Hood in a meeting 18 months ago;
  • Systematic downsizing and removal of local PNG contractors and the hiring of Australian expatriates as contractors to do PNG jobs;
  • Unequal pay and fringe benefits between PNGers and expatriate workers including a newly introduced car allowance for expatriates;
  • Inconsistencies between PNGers, expatriates and Filipino workers in the number of days for onsite work and field breaks.

A thermal blast incident some months ago allegedly resulted in the burning of a landowner's child. Once the strike began, landowners closed down the island's Londolovit airport.

The initial four-day strike forced CEO Arthur Hood into a promise to meet the workers. Strikers vowed not to resume work until Hood personally addressed their issues.

But PNG's labour and industrial relations secretary, David Tibu, condemned the strike. The Department of Labor sent officials to Lihir to end it. The government also flew heavily armed police to the island, two days into the strike "to guard company assets".

The OK Tedi and Porgera mines were imposed in a manner similar to this. As in these cases, the key is for miners and landowners to unite in a common struggle.

From the Australian perspective, the big issue is our rulers' role in the repression of PNG workers. Most mining managers and supervisors are expatriate Australians. Almost all mine-related consumption is imported from Australia.

Australian-imposed mining model has not delivered for PNG. Mining is an "enclave" activity, with almost no financial link to the rest of the PNG economy-especially since it provides 60 per cent of PNG's total earning but employs only 1 per cent of its workforce. The struggle for justice at Lihir continues.

By Tom Orsag

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