Working Life
FIFO worker

Pilbara mine workers unite to take on Rio Tinto

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By Martin Watters

Friday, 16 August, 2013

AUSTRALIA during the last ten years has witnessed one of history’s greatest mining booms.

Thanks to record demand from Asia, the extraction and export of our wealth of resources has transformed our economy.

At the heart of the boom are the tens of thousands of mining industry workers – workers who have been on the frontline of massive workplace upheavals to cater for the boom.

Australia is rich with various resources but our biggest export commodity is iron ore, the vast majority of which come from one the greatest iron ore bodies in the world in Western Australia’s Pilbara region.

Shifting the 455 million tonnes of Pilbara iron ore each year are approximately 38,000 workers. Many of these are employed on a fly-in, fly-out (FIFO) basis. Employers argue FIFO offers the “flexibility” of working in the outback and living in

Perth or other cities across Australia. But in reality workers have little choice.

Accommodation in mining towns is scarce and expensive. Studies show FIFO tears at the social fabric of mining communities. It’s no picnic for workers either.

Workers’ camps can become hotspots for alcohol and drug abuse. FIFO workers report higher rates of depression and anxiety, both from workplace stress and the isolation from family and friends. Earlier this year the body of a Rio Tinto employee who died in his temporary accommodation went four days before being discovered.

Hard, dangerous and dusty work

Industry is quick to counter any hardships by highlighting the wages mineworkers can earn. But earn it they do – the work is often hard, dangerous and dusty.

Standard WA mining rosters can be up to 14 days of 12-hour shifts followed by a week off – not talking into account travel time at the start and end of each shift – producing an average working week of 56 hours, or 84 hours a week in ‘on’ weeks.

Suffice to say, Pilbara mineworkers have had little options for union representation.

The biggest employer in the Pilbara is Rio Tinto, which operates 14 iron ore mines, three ports and 1400km of rail network.

Like many employers in the region Rio is aggressively and unabashedly opposed to workers unionising. The majority of those employed at the multinational’s Pilbara operations currently work without the option of having a say in their working conditions.

During his time as Rio’s iron ore boss in 2011, current CEO Sam Walsh said greater unionising of Pilbara iron ore operations would threaten the country’s productivity and export performance.

He described his company’s ruthless push for individual agreements as “maintaining direct contact” with employees.

Pilbara train pic

FIFO workers report higher rates of depression and anxiety, both from workplace stress and the isolation from family.

Productivity is often cited by big business when pushing for greater industrial relations deregulation, but like much of that debate, Walsh’s claim is a furphy.

Mining companies are typified by their love of the unsustainable quick fix and this is what happened in the non-unionised Pilbara when workplace change was simply imposed rather than negotiated with workers.

Individuals often agree to work long hours for more money, especially when it’s the difference between having a job or not. But very few make a career out of 14-day runs of 12-hour shifts. Spouses lose interest, marriages fail and kids grow up hardly seeing one of their parents.

Workforces that bargain collectively are much more likely to take a long-term view, bargaining for hours allowing them to have a career and a family life.

This is what happened in the more unionised mining operations of the NSW and Queensland coalfields, where productivity growth over the last 20 years has usually bettered that of the mostly non-union metal ore mining industry with its higher employee turnover rates.

Unions gain a foothold in the Pilbara

Perhaps the real reason Sam Walsh sought to scaremonger about unions was that 2011 was the first year in two decades unions had regained a foothold in the Pilbara, with the Construction, Forestry, Mining & Energy Union (CFMEU) striking an agreement to cover Rio’s rail workers.

The CFMEU hopes to go further in their historic pact with The Australian Workers’ Union (AWU) to bring back collective bargaining choices for all workers in the Pilbara.

The two unions have joined forces to form the Western Mine Workers Alliance, and will also draw inspiration from AWU members at Rio’s Bell Bay aluminium smelter in Tasmania who won collective bargaining rights for the first time since 1994.

AWU National Secretary Paul Howes said the memorandum of understanding was based on the 2003 alliance struck between the AWU and the Maritime Union of Australia that resulted in offshore oil and gas workers finally having a say at work.

Howes conceded one reason unions were shut out of the Pilbara was demarcation differences between the CFMEU and AWU, which Rio infamously exploited to its advantage during a bitter anti-union crusade in the early 1990s.

“The alliance will herald a new era for workplace representation in the Pilbara after Rio ruthlessly exploited our differences 20 years ago, something they will not be able to repeat with the two unions working together,” Howes said.

CFMEU General President Tony Maher said Rio should not feel threatened, given the trend for members to push for long-term sustainable work practices during bargaining.

“Rio likes to talk about offering a direct link with its employees,” Maher said. “But this will be the first time in 20 years that Pilbara mineworkers will have a say in their working conditions.

“For two decades workers have been denied the option to collectively bargain something they should be able to take for granted in a modern workplace.

“We’re committed to ensuring productivity as it means long-term job security for our members. Rio should welcome that.”

Let’s spread it around

Join the campaign to make the mining boom work for all Australians.

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Working Life is a forum to share ideas and opinions about work and life, both light-hearted and serious. The opinions presented on Working Life are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent policies or views of the ACTU.

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