Mar 12, 2020












It’s hard to think of a more telling visual metaphor in Australian politics than Scott Morrison carrying a lump of coal into Parliament.


What we saw that day was a Government whose focus on mining is not on the thousands of mine workers and the communities they live in.


For them, mining is about those who get the profits, not those who create them.


Mining is just one more weapon in their culture war – a conflict where ideological fetish collides with dumb political theatre.


It’s a conflict that succeeds only in holding us back as a nation.


But the same Government that likes to champion mining seems happy enough for mineworkers to get ripped off.


It is a Government that is so blinkered, it cannot see the plainest truth: that workers, employers and unions ultimately share the same goal.


The success of each is dependent on the success of the others.


People and profits together.


Yes, this Government will talk about jobs. But they don’t talk about the security of jobs.


But considering the speed with which casualisation is spreading throughout the industry, job security should be an urgent priority.


Even more so now as we start feeling the quickly growing pressures on our economy and our society from the coronavirus pandemic.


As the virus spreads and people are urged to self-isolate, our casual workers will be among those most vulnerable.


But even this is beyond the comprehension of this out-of-touch Government. In the words of Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter earlier this week:

“Many people would have already made provisions for that because of course the purpose of casual employment is that you’re paid extra in lieu of entitlements.”


In the words of my shadow industrial relations minister, Tony Burke: “What planet is this guy on?”


After the tireless slog over decades by the union movement, how did we slide back into this state?


Over the past five years, there has been a sharp decline in direct, permanent employment by mining companies and a sharp increase in use of labour hire contractors to provide mineworkers.


Casual labour hire has grown out of control in the coal mining industry.


In many Queensland coal mines, more than half the workforce are casual labour hire workers


This costs regional mining communities hundreds of millions in lost wages and economic activity


We need stronger laws to prevent mining companies driving down wages and conditions through casual labour hire.


So many Australians are being seriously short-changed.


At the moment if you’re working for a labour hire company, chances are you’ll get 40 per cent less than a permanent worker.


Forty per cent less, even if that permanent worker is someone you work alongside, doing the same job.


Even if it’s a permanent worker with the same skills and qualifications.


With the same dedication to the job.


With the same hours.


With the same risks.


But that’s where the similarities run out.


We have two classes of worker. Contemplate the gulf between them.


If you’re a casual you don’t have annual leave.


You don’t have sick leave.


You don’t have job security.


And that’s even counting those casuals, who are performing specialist roles.


You won’t hear a peep out of the Government about any of that.


For Labor, it’s pretty simple: same work, same pay.


Another thing you won’t hear this Government talking about is wages and conditions.


That’s because they represent the interests of big mining companies, not mine workers.


The work done by those who toil in the mines each day should be respected, and it should be valued.


And yet if we are to judge this Government by its record, we would have to conclude that they value resources far more than they value the people who actually dig them up.


Once again, we are seeing this Government turning its back on Australians in their time of need.


But not everyone is missing in action.


I am grateful to the Mining and Energy division of the CFMEU for commissioning from Dr Stephen Whelan and the McKell Institute this very timely report: “Wage-cutting Strategies in the Mining



The subtitle says it all: “The cost to workers and communities.”


That cost is huge.


The scale on which miners are being ripped off through the casualisation of the workforce is nothing less than a crisis.


And it is growing.


We are witnessing the consequences of the weakness in our current workplace laws that let mining companies use outsourcing strategies to bypass union-negotiated enterprise agreements.


Workers are losing the gains that have been hard won over generations.


What it boils down to is that money is effectively being taken out of family pay packets. And as they get fleeced to fatten someone else’s bottom line, the communities they live in are suffering as well.


As though regional Australia wasn’t already suffering enough with the effects of fire and prolonged drought.


Even if we focus on just two coal regions – the Hunter in NSW and the Bowen Basin in central Queensland – the impact is huge.


I’ll quote from the report:

“…labour hire, outsourcing and subcontracting leads to a situation where the workers are less like to be employed by the economic decision maker and their wages are vulnerable to being undercut by labour-hire firms which reduce their take-home pay relative to that received under union negotiated agreements.

“The wage-cutting strategies have resulted in up to $825 million being removed from local economies in just two mining regions. As well as directly hurting the workers concerned, the flow-on impacts reduce the social and economic benefits that mining brings to a number of major regions.”


Australia’s mining sector employs over 230,000 Australians, and is thought to indirectly contribute over one million Australian jobs.


As a proportion of GDP, mining is around 8 per cent of the Australian economy.


A 2014 study focused on Australia’s mining sector estimated that for each new job in mining, 1.4 additional jobs are created in the local region where mining activity occurs.


It’s an important reminder of both how much mining underpins the vitality of much of regional Australia, and how important it is that regional communities diversify their economies.


But mining companies are shirking their duty as employers, and the social licence that communities grant them on the understanding that they pay their workers decently.


Even when they haven’t gone down the casualisation road 100 per cent, the problems are still significant.


According to Dr Whelan’s report, BHP’s 2019 sustainability report showed 56 per cent of jobs in its Australian operations were contractors and not directly employed.


It has nearly 13,000 workers across its nine Queensland mines, but fewer than 3000 of them are employed under site enterprise agreements.


Meanwhile, Operations Services – BHP’s in-house labour hire service – is deploying hundreds of workers in Queensland and NSW coal mines under enterprise agreements made with a handful of employees 3000 kilometres away in the Pilbara.


These workers had no experience working in the coal industry, and agreed to conditions far below the standard in coal.


At Mount Arthur, those workers are being paid $106,000, compared to the rate in the union agreement of $159,200.


Operations Services marketing has focused on the jobs being permanent, so they do attract annual leave.


But as Dr Whelan observes in this report, even here the jobs have much worse conditions in a number of other areas including no accident pay, incentive bonuses that are difficult to get, and payment for transport including FIFO flights that are entirely at management’s whim.


Of course, casualisation is hardly restricted to the mining industry. But it’s in the mining industry where it has truly hit its stride.


As Dr Whelan’s report tells us, growth in casualisation in the mining industry at over 59 per cent in the period 2014-2018 exceeds that for all other industries.


There is a lot of cause for concern.


And it’s exacerbated by a Government that does nothing to eradicate dodgy workplace practices that lead to the exploitation of casuals.


A Government that rejects the interests of workers as instinctively as the human body rejects a donor organ.


But there is hope.


Not least thanks to the CFMEU’s victory in the Federal Court in 2018 with one of your members, Paul Skene.


The Court found that Paul could not properly be considered a casual under the Fair Work Act due to the regular and continuous nature of his work on a fixed roster.


As a consequence, Paul was entitled to receive accrued annual leave pay on termination of his employment.


So many of the mining industry’s casuals are in the same situation, performing regular and continuous work on a fixed roster.


It came as no surprise that this triggered a bogus outcry from employer groups about the potential for double-dipping.


It came as much of a surprise that they won the backing of the Government, which wants to help these employer groups have their cake and eat it too.


If you want a prime example of double-dipping, that is it.


The same Government that has so far spent nearly $300,000 of taxpayers’ money trying to overturn the Skene decision by intervening in the Rossato Case.


In the words of your General Secretary, Grahame Kelly:

“We need politicians not only willing to stand up for mining jobs, but for permanent, secure mining jobs on the conditions Union members have fought for and won over generations.”


With this report, the CFMEU has fought another important round.


Labor stands ready with you to fight the next.