British Columbia

Rio Tinto smelter conditions in Kitimat under fire from union

“Why are our members relieving themselves in the basements and in courtyards and in stairwells? That’s disgraceful. It speaks to human dignity,” says local union president.

Company says they're "surprised" by online petition, says health and safety are top priorities

The local branch of Unifor is criticizing Rio Tinto for not providing sanitary places to eat, cool rooms or even adequate restrooms in its new Kitimat smelter. (Radio-Canada Archives)

Employees at the Rio Tinto smelter in Kitimat are speaking out against the working conditions at the aluminum-producing facility.

A petition penned by their union, Unifor, says amenities as basic as bathrooms and clean places to eat are inadequate — or non-existent — and mandatory overtime has workers fatigued, putting them in danger.

Rio Tinto spokesperson Kevin Dobbin told Radio West he was "surprised" by the petition.

"We always start every call or meeting with safety. Obviously health and safety is our number one priority," Dobbin said.

Dobbin says the company and the union have been talking about the overtime issue, and says contractors have been hired to help at the union's request.

He says a new smelter is starting up, and some areas require extra work, which is the reason for the extra overtime.

He also says new washrooms and a cafeteria are coming.

Union prez calls conditions 'disgraceful'

Local union president Sean O'Driscoll says he and colleagues are happy the new smelter is in place, but says it can't "come at the cost of health and safety for the workers."

He says the smelter has been operational since June, and asks why it's taken so long to get safe washrooms, clean places to eat and cool rooms — cool resting areas where workers can take a break from the smelter's heat.

"Right from the get-go, the union implored the employer, 'Look, how could you build a $5 billion smelter and forget to install bathroom?'" O'Driscoll told Radio West host Audrey McKinnon.

"Why are our members relieving themselves in the basements and in courtyards and in stairwells? That's disgraceful. It speaks to human dignity."

O'Driscoll says an aluminum smelter is a dirty, hot work environment, making cool rooms and clean places to eat and hydrate a necessity.

He says there are temporary washrooms, and the cool rooms are under construction, but timelines for completion keep getting pushed back.

He also says he's hearing from family members of union members that some workers are at risk of burning out because of overtime, but are afraid of being disciplined for turning down work.

With files from CBC Radio One's Radio West

To hear the full story, click the audio labelled: Union decries mandatory overtime, lack of bathrooms at Rio Tinto smelter in Kitimat