Human rights and the mining industry: managing the problems before they arise

Human rights and the mining industry: managing the problems before they arise

As people become ever more aware of what’s going on the world — including the impact of commercial activity on human rights — the expectations of society are inevitably rising. This in turn is increasing expectations of how companies and governments should perform. There’s a growing trend of individuals, communities and civil society movements alleging human rights violations and making claims against governments and companies. Dr Elizabeth Adey, Principal Social Specialist at Wardell Armstrong, looks at how mining companies can manage these issues – and the lessons we can learn from two very different projects.

Here’s the challenge. To avoid human rights impacts actually happening, the right measures need to be in place at the appropriate stage of a project before companies are even aware that they have any problems to solve. “Prevention is better than a cure” is the fundamental approach that’s needed for successfully embedding an effective human rights policy. Companies need to take proactive steps to identify potential and actual risks, and implement measures to protect and respect human rights as an integral part of gaining and maintaining their social licence to operate. But how? And what can we learn from past projects where these issues have been handled either badly or well?

Tragic event

In August 2012, it was reported that 44 people were killed at Lonmin’s Marikana site in South Africa. They included 34 miners who were shot dead in a single incident. A series of issues had led up to this tragic event (the subject of an ongoing inquiry), including fatalities of policemen, security guards and a National Union of Mineworkers branch chairman. So what does it tell us about how to prevent incidents like this in the future?

‘Strike season’, as it’s referred to in South Africa, happens when wage negotiations take place in different economic sectors and often result in labour walkouts. In 2012, the strike season had a severe effect on the mining, construction and automobile sectors. Rival unions were asking for pay rises of between 60% and 150% at a time when companies were struggling in a tough international environment with falling metal prices, and were reportedly offering wage increases of around 6.5%.

Vic Van Vuuren, a director of the International Labour Organisation in South Africa, was quoted on voanews.com in September 2013* as suggesting that companies were missing an opportunity to bring some stability to the mining sector by taking a long range view: “They seem to be like rabbits in headlights, not knowing whether to move left or to move right, and waiting to see how the unions play out against each other…. Management seems to have rested on their laurels, and say, 'OK, for social dialogue we need to focus on it only when we do our wage bargaining.' And it isn't the case because poverty levels and the wage gap is so high that it's going to be on the agenda continually."

What happened at Marikana seems to reflect many shortcomings – in managing the police force, failure to understand the implications of historic cultural and political legacies, and of a lack of embedded conflict resolution and crisis management measures. But underlying all this – and to avoid such situations happening again – is a deeper need to understand and adequately account for the perceptions that a workforce may have of the project in which they’re involved.

As part of this, creating two-way dialogue is an essential element in successfully engaging stakeholders – and it’s of pivotal importance in understanding and developing ways to protect and respect human rights.

Lack of trust

Between 2011 and 2013 I worked on an exploration gold mining project in Kazakhstan. What did the UN guiding principles of the ‘respect, protect and remedy’ framework mean to villagers living in a remote Kazakh village nearby?

“Once the mine closes, you will have made your money,” said a local villager. “We will be left with the environment you leave behind – and what will happen to our community when the jobs go?”

Her words summed up the general lack of trust that local people had at that time. This was simply because the previous operators had sold the site for a variety of reasons and failed to communicate their move adequately to stakeholders – including the local community. The new owners were left to manage the problem and the distrust.

An essential part of my work on site was therefore to let local people know that I worked for an ‘independent’ consultancy’. I found out the most about how the community operated and their views about the history of the site after I started to gain the trust of local people and was invited by them to local festivals.  It brought home how essential it is to have strong community relations and in-depth understanding in order to recognise the potential human rights breaches that could arise, and help to embed preventative measures in management practices.

Trust is particularly important in a country like Kazakhstan where there are still issues relating to corruption, either real or perceived.  So here as elsewhere, the local people wanted transparency and regular communication about the progression of the site. They wanted clear information on how they could apply for jobs. They wanted to be able to understand the timeframe for the development of the project. They wanted to know about the project infrastructure. Ultimately – and completely understandably – they wanted to know how the project would affect their lives.

One of the key components in establishing trust in the new owners was the development of an open, accessible, effective and useable grievance mechanism. It proved an important vehicle in enabling local people to have their say and ask questions of the company – including their direct responsibility to protect, respect and remedy human rights.

Embedding the right measures

The driver for change in how human rights are assessed comes from a variety of different areas. Changes made to the UK Companies Act, for example, have made it mandatory for UK listed companies to cover human rights aspects in their annual report, including disclosing human rights policy. They also have to demonstrate the measures they have in place for managing actual human rights violations and mitigating potential ones. The United Nations guiding principles on business and human rights (the ‘protect, respect and remedy framework’) also gives guidance to businesses and states on how to improve their human rights practice.

The real complexity of the challenge lies in how best to transform the theory into the reality of what happens at site level, including the implementation of the guiding principles, human rights policies and management systems. This is where incorporating human rights aspects into due diligence, ESIAs, human rights training and regular monitoring needs to become an essential part of operations.

Despite their stark differences, the two project examples we’ve looked at point to some of the key lessons in the successful management of human rights issues. The common starting point is the need to look at the wider picture and outside influences, and to understand the history of a site from a socio-political point of view through early and regular contact with stakeholders – including cultural legacies and their current implications. This is the first key step in anticipating potential human rights violations, and making sure that identified areas of concern are properly managed through embedding effective measures that can prevent or control impacts.

As the project progresses, there remains the need to regularly monitor changes to the socio-economic baseline, identify any developments that might represent signs of potential human rights impacts, and adjust the measures that are in place to manage them.

Social media platforms have made a real impact on business to society relations through the development of new information exchange mechanisms. Engaging with social media is now becoming part of the informal consultation process alongside face to face engagement with stakeholders. Potentially this will become an important means of identifying possible human rights impacts, and monitoring changes and public opinion.

Any failure to understand historical context, existing legacies and their implications – or to plan effectively for the management of potential issues – will only increase the chances that an operation will create human rights impacts, whatever their scale or severity. On the other hand, a well thought through approach to human rights will support the smooth running of a project, enhance the reputation of the mining company, and help to protect the returns for all concerned.