The purpose of this blog is to provide analytical commentary on formal and informal labour organisations and their attempts to resist ever more brutal forms of exploitation in today’s neo-liberal, global capitalism.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Exploitation in the Global South and North: lessons from the aluminium industry.

The production of aluminium is based on the destruction of the environment and exploitation of workers in the Global South and North alike, reported Frank Meyer, the Director of ARBARK, the Archive and Library of the Norwegian labour movement, to the transnational labour project at the Centre for Advanced Study in Oslo. In this blog post, I will provide an overview of Frank Meyer’s key points in relation to his comparative case study of Porto Trombetas in Brazil and Årdal in Norway and reflect on the possible involvement of trade unions in resisting exploitation in the aluminium industry.

Porto Trombetas: the high environmental and social cost of bauxite extraction.

The Brazilian town of Port Trombetas is an important port for bauxite extraction, the raw material necessary for the production of aluminium. Located in the Amazon rainforest, the environmental destruction takes mainly place at three levels. First, in order to extract bauxite, the trees and top layer of earth need to be removed. As re-foresting is almost impossible, some local people describe the area as ‘a desert as far as the eye can see’. Second, there is an enormous degradation of fresh water as a result of bauxite extraction leaving indigenous people without access to drinking water. Third, the large cargo ships transporting the bauxite to smelters in the North release salt water in the port, which they had taken on in order to be stable in their voyage across the ocean to Brazil. Fish and other life forms are destroyed as a result. 

Photo Norsk Hydro ASA

The social problems are equally harsh. The indigenous people, who had lived in this area before the mining, were already removed before the mines were established. In order to set up the mines, 6000 temporary, migrant workers were brought in, only to be sent home and replaced by 1000 well trained workers, once they had established the mines. Workers in the mines themselves are well looked after with good houses, schools for their children and a hospital. Nevertheless, they live in a gated community and people from local villages, descending from runaway slaves, have no access to these facilities. Similarly disastrous for the latter is the pollution of the river undermining their traditional form of life based on hunting and fishing. In short, parts of the population were displaced due to the mines, while the remaining people live in segregated and highly unequal communities.

Photo by Norsk Hydro ASA
Årdal: the high cost of ‘modernisation’.

While bauxite has traditionally been extracted in countries in the Global South, aluminium smelters were generally established in the North. The aluminium smelter in Årdal, actually fully established during German occupation of Norway in World War Two, became a focus of industrialisation and modernisation after the war. And yet, while social democratic governments ensured that conditions for workers and wider society improved, the impact on the local environment and people was equally harsh at least at the beginning. For years, the toxic smoke of the smelting process polluted the surrounding country and led to the death of farmers’ live stock as well as diseases amongst the workers, who were closely exposed to it. Moreover, in Årdal too migrant workers had been brought in initially to set up the smelter, including forced Serbian labour by the German occupiers.

Photo by Norsk Hydro ASA

Despite Årdal’s model character for the Norwegian social democratic order, some jobs at the factory could not be saved, when global restructuring in the aluminium industry hit. Norsk Hydro, an increasingly important transnational corporation in this particular sector, was involved in shifting parts of production to Mesaieed in Quatar, where it participated in the construction of the world’s largest smelter.

Resistance: what role for trade unions?

Photo by andrefromont
As Frank Meyer made clear, the most active and at times at least successful resistance movements are indigenous communities, who have been able to set up international networks, environmental NGOs, and consumer solidarity campaigns organised by Greenpeace. The Catholic Church is also of importance as a highly recognised, transnational network. By contrast, trade unions have not been very visible. In Brazil, they are tied into a corporatist relationship with the company and government, focusing on securing jobs for their members. The country itself rejects any foreign intervention into Brazil’s internal affairs as a form of new imperialism. In turn, Norwegian trade unions too are mainly concerned with jobs. A study tour by LO to Brazil only reported on the good conditions of mine workers in Porto Trombetas, describing them as the export of the Nordic Model by Norsk Hydro, without acknowledging the resulting problems for wider society in the region and the environment. Has labour no role to play in resistance to these extreme forms of exploitation? Are especially Northern trade unions a form of labour aristocracy, which benefits from exploitation in the Global South?

At first sight, it is logical why trade unions focus on jobs and working conditions for their members. These are inevitably the issues closest to home. Nevertheless, and Frank Meyer’s presentation made this clear, in spite of the cooperation with employers, the destruction of the environment and the negative implications for workers’ and their families’ health affect union members in both the Global South and North. Moreover, in spite of the cooperation with employers, jobs are ultimately never secure. As soon as higher profitability levels are on offer elsewhere, companies move with little consideration for the impact on local communities. In short, there are ample reasons for why workers in the Global South and North should co-operate in defending their jobs and the environment.

Photo by Norsk Hydro ASA
How can new discourses be generated, which involve workers and trade unions in wider reflections on the conditions within, and consequences of, their industries? The Trade Unions for Energy Democracy initiative with the goal ‘to advance democratic direction and control of energy in a way that promotes solutions to the climate crisis, energy poverty, the degradation of both land and people, and the repression of workers’ rights and protections’ ( may be one way forward in this respect. To date is has generated considerable support from trade unions in the Global South and North and not only from public sector trade unions such as the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) or Public Services International (PSI), but also industrial and mining unions including the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) and the Russian Oil, Gas and Construction Workers’ Union (ROGWU).

Frank Meyer’s research on Porto Trombetas, Årdal and the aluminium industry has been published in Borges, J. Marcelo and Susana B. Torres (eds.) (2012) Company Towns: Labor, Space, and Power Relations across Time and Continents. London: Palgrave. 

Prof. Andreas Bieler
Professor of Political Economy
University of Nottingham/UK

Personal website:

16 January 2014

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