[Updated] Unifor 2301 lashing out at mandatory overtime at Rio Tinto smelter

The union representing workers at Rio Tinto's smelter in Kitimat are concerned with worker safety due to mandatory overtimes.

Unifor 2301, the local representing workers at Rio Tinto’s smelter in Kitimat, is lashing out at their employer for its use of mandatory overtime of its employees.

In a release sent out today, 2301 President Sean O’Driscoll said the union is “concerned that the on-going utilization of mandatory overtime by Rio Tinto will have adverse health and safety impacts on its members or conflict with family responsibilities, such as child care.”

He continued in the release saying “Workers at the smelter report a culture of fear, where they feel if the mandatory overtime assignments are refused, the employer will impose suspensions or even terminate their employment.”

He said the union will be seeking support from all levels of government to lobby the working conditions at the smelter, noting that it’s not believed that the company’s commitment to hiring temporary transitional employees, which would alleviate need for overtime of regular employees, has been met.

Rio Tinto’s spokesperson in Kitimat Kevin Dobbin said the increased demand in hours is directly tied to the company’s work in getting all of their pots operational but emphasized the company’s commitment to safety.

“Health, safety and the environment is our top priority for Rio Tinto. Obviously we don’t want to do anything that risks the safety of our employees, our workers or our contractors on site,” said Dobbin.

He said the company is requesting all employees be available as they work towards full operations.

As of Friday the smelter had 216 of 384 pots running.

“Our first choice is for the employees that would like overtime,” he added, saying Rio Tinto management did meet with the union this week and on request the company will look at hiring contract operations positions.

Dobbin said they are following the collective labour agreement and WorkSafeBC regulations.

“This is a short term situation right now as we’re progressing through the start up.”

Early 2016 should see 100 per cent of the pots running but the smelter won’t be in what the company considers “steady state” until 2017 said Dobbin.

Overtime is being called in specifically in the reduction, casting and wharf sections.

“We’re looking forward to getting the smelter up and running and [are] anxious to have it and I’m sure our employees are as well.”

The full text of Unifor 2301’s press release:

Rio Tinto (RT), formerly Rio Tinto Alcan, has ordered much of its workforce to work mandatory overtime shifts, in addition to workers’ regular shifts, at the mining corporation’s recently modernized Kitimat, BC, aluminum smelter. Most workers at the smelter work 12-hour shifts, including night shifts.

Unifor Local 2301, the union representing unionized workers at the smelter, is concerned that the on-going utilization of mandatory overtime by Rio Tinto will have adverse health and safety impacts on its members or conflict with family responsibilities, such as child care. The Union contends that as many of its members are reporting increased levels of stress and fatigue as a result of being ordered to work excessive hours during what has been a difficult start-up of the smelter, the potential for serious accident or fatality in this industrial environment is very real.

Workers at the smelter report a culture of fear, where they feel if the mandatory overtime assignments are refused, the employer will impose suspensions or even terminate their employment. In fact, some workers have already been disciplined for refusing mandatory overtime assignments.

The Union reports that while RT has repeatedly declared that it is within its contractual rights to impose the mandatory overtime, a declaration which is in dispute, the employer should be finding healthier and safer ways to facilitate the start-up of the smelter, such as through increased workforce levels, even if these increases need only be temporary.

The Union is always willing to work with the employer on all matters which affect the well-being of its members and the viability of operations. To date, the Union has made several proposals to Rio Tinto in this regard, with limited results.

The current collective agreement between the parties contain “transition” and “temporary” employee provisions, intended to provide temporary work, particularly for local residents, during the start-up phase of the smelter, which the Union believes Rio Tinto has not fully utilized.

In addition to utilizing regular dispute mechanisms, the Union will be requesting the assistance of municipal, provincial and federal elected officials to lobby Rio Tinto to improve the unsustainable situation in the smelter and that the company rather than insist on exercising its “rights” focus on mitigating the impact its decisions have had on – and to do right by – its employees and the community.

Unifor is Canada’s largest union in the private sector, representing more than 310,000 workers. It was formed Labour Day weekend 2013 when the Canadian Auto Workers and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers unions merged. Unifor is Canada’s largest union in the private sector, representing more than 310,000 workers. It was formed Labour Day weekend 2013 when the Canadian Auto Workers and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers unions merged.