"The system works. The overwhelming majority of Canadian mining companies are world leaders in responsible mining practices... The corporate social responsibility counsellor's review process is a common sense approach that enjoys broad support within the mining community."
The above quote is from a Conservative MP speaking in the House of Commons a year ago. The system the MP was referring to is the Conservative’s Corporate Social Responsibility Strategy, created in 2009. Four years earlier, the federal government’s own Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade had urged the government to 'establish clear legal norms in Canada to ensure that Canadian companies and residents are held accountable when there is evidence of environmental and/or human rights violations associated with the activities of Canadian mining companies.' The CSR Strategy was the Conservative government's response.
Eschewing mandatory reporting on rights standards and penalties for corporations found in violation of those standards, the CSR Strategy is not an accountability mechanism. Instead, it establishes voluntary reporting guidelines and a CSR counsellor who, only if given permission by the accused corporation, is mandated to mediate, not pass judgement on, complaints against Canadian companies.
For a party that prides itself on being tough on crime, this approach to accountability is offensively soft. It’s also out of touch with emerging international norms on corporate accountability, and even falls short of mechanisms now operating in countries such as the US and UK. If you find yourself wanting to cut the Conservatives a break in the belief the ‘overwhelming majority of Canadian companies are world leaders in responsible mining’, don’t. The same year that the CSR Strategy was introduced, a report commissioned by the Canadian mining industry association (the Prospectors and Developers Association on Canada, PDAC) found that Canadian extractive corporations were involved in more CSR violations than any other country in the world.
So how is the system working on ground? In Colombia, Toronto based PRE, now the largest independent oil producer in Latin America, is a signatory to the UN Global Compact, a CSR mechanism in which corporations make voluntary commitments to internationally recognized core human, labour and environmental rights. However, while PRE dutifully completes its annual CSR reporting commitments, local community members, Indigenous people and workers at PRE’s primary production sites in the Meta department of Colombia tell a different story. At public hearings held this past July, witnesses provided testimonies accusing PRE of a wide range of Indigenous, environmental and labour rights violations.
For example, PRE is accused of firing over 90% of the 5,000 odd oil workers who had attempted to associate and bargain for labour improvements under the national oil workers union, USO. PRE then allegedly circulated lists amongst its contractors, identifying USO affiliated workers who were not to be given employment. Workers had requested representation from USO to help address a slew of complaints associated with labour conditions at the PRE operations, including poor living conditions, below industry average wages and an insecure employment system based on 28 day contracts.
Numerous Indigenous leaders stood up to accuse PRE of contaminating their drinking water, displacing them from their land and reneging on commitments to provide financial assistance. Community, Indigenous and labour leaders who have opposed and protested against PRE have been met with severe repression, death threats and in one case, assassination, from PRE security guards, Colombian police and private armed paramilitary groups. For their own safety, union leaders are forced to travel in armoured vehicles and are constantly surrounded by private bodyguards.
That PRE is not self-reporting accusations of its own rights abuses is not surprising. Why would they? That is not how the system works. Free from any effective accountability mechanisms, PRE is free to spin whatever narrative suits them. The Canadian government plays a key supporting role in this theatre. They have consistently rejected attempts, such as Bill C-300, to introduce accountability for corporations overseas, they excluded direct investments in Colombia by Canadian corporations from the annual human rights impact assessment that is a requirement of the recently signed Canada-Colombia FTA, and over the past three years, rewarded PRE with $15-25M in financing from the government’s Export Development Corporation.
The Conservative system is one in which victims of rights violations at the hands of Canadian corporations are prohibited from seeking redress and justice. It is a system that allows corporate criminals, like PRE, to pursue profits at the expense of rights and dignity with impunity.
That system may work to enrich PRE executives, but it does not work for Hector Sanchez, a community leader who received a death threat after providing testimony against PRE at the public hearings. The system did not work for Milton Rivas Parra, a union activist opposed to PRE who was gunned down days after receiving a similar death threat in December 2012. And the system does not work for the Sikuani Indigenous people, whom are now at risk of extinction.
Note: PRE has engaged in an extensive marketing campaign both in Colombia and Canada to improve its image by undertaking strategic corporate sponsorships. These include the Colombian national soccer team, and also a sponsor of the upcoming Pan American Food Festival at Harbourfront. This did not sit well with many in Toronto who recently petitioned to have PRE removed from the corporate sponsor list. They presented a letter to the director of the food festival signed by close to two dozen organizations including Labour and community groups questioning this corporate relationship.
John Barber is a member of the Colombia Action Solidarity Alliance (CASA). John was recently in Colomba and partook in the Popular Tribunal on Extractive Policies in Colombia.
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