March 17, 2020
The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the folly of an economy built on casual labour. With business-as-usual on hold as governments grapple with containing the spread of the virus, everyone is facing uncertain times. But casual workers are especially vulnerable because they have no entitlements when work they have relied on is suddenly unavailable.
The mining industry has been one of the worst offenders when it comes to casualisation. The replacement of good permanent jobs with casual labour hire jobs is especially egregious in our industry considering that the vast majority of jobs in mining are the opposite of casual in nature – they are regular and on-going with rosters set many months in advance.
They have not been classified as casual in order to manage peaks and troughs in work, but purely to save money for mining companies.
I was very pleased to be in Mackay last week for the launch of a new report our Union commissioned from the McKell Institute – ‘Wage-cutting strategies in the mining industry: the cost to workers and communities’. The report looks at how the trend towards replacing direct permanent employment with casual labour hire employment in mining affects wages and flow-on economic benefits to mining communities.
Instead of earning more to make up for the lack of entitlements, casual mineworkers usually earn at least a third less than permanents, even with their casual ‘loading’.
While these lower wages clearly have a direct impact on the workers whose remuneration is reduced, and their families, the widespread use of lower-paid labour hire workers has spill-over effects that are felt more widely in the local community.
This report considers the experience of workers in the coal sector in the Hunter region in New South Wales and the Bowen Basin in central Queensland.
In just three areas that correspond to major coal mining regions – but do not include all coal mining – the estimated losses to the regions are up to $825 million a year.
If we consider that the use of labour hire is also entrenched in other coal mining regions such as NSW’s Illawarra and Central West, we can extrapolate that the loss to communities from the coal industry is up to $1 billion a year. This is money that comes straight out of mining regions and on to mining company bottom lines.
It is a weakness in our current workplace laws that mining companies can use outsourcing strategies to bypass union-negotiated enterprise agreements with good pay and conditions won over many years; and it was good to hear Labor leader Anthony Albanese commit a future Labor government to legislating ‘same job same pay’ for labour hire workers.
Our more immediate challenge is making sure that casual labour hire workers are not thrown on the scrap heap if the Covid-19 pandemic affects mining operations.
That’s why we have joined the Australian Workers’ Union in calling for all mining employers across the industry to make sure that labour hire workers are looked after and have their wages covered in case of illness or enforced self-isolation in the weeks and months ahead.
How the pandemic affects mining remains to be seen. What we do know is that mining companies can afford to do the right thing. They’ve profited enormously from driving down wages in the push to outsource jobs – now it’s time to make sure that all mineworkers have the protection and reassurance they need to get through this difficult time without sacrificing either their health or their financial security.