Mining in Western Australia – A Pit for Sexual Harassment
Mining for minerals, oil and gas constitutes one of the major sources of income for Western Australia with some of the largest industries, such as BHP, generating billions of dollars each year. Of a population of around 2.7 million, more than 156.000 people were employed in mining, mineral exploration and the petroleum industry (Government of Western Australia, 2021). In light of the remoteness of mines, miners do not live close to the mines, but are fly-in-fly-out (FIFO) personnel. This has inevitably translated into a blur between employment and recreation while on site and has led to a unique work culture characterising the interactions between the mining personnel.
In June 2022, the Parliament of Western Australia released its report entitled ‘Enough is Enough’. Sexual Harassment against Women in the FIFO Mining Industry. The report shows that sexual harassment against women constitutes a major problem in the FIFO mining industry and that industry officials have not been aware of the gravity of the problem. The report essentially follows the footsteps of an inquiry by the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC, 2020), which already found that mining is one of the five sectors in Australian industry concerning sexual harassment and that 74% of women working in the mining industry have experienced some form of harassment. Moreover, the study notes that:
- in the mining industry, the harasser is often a co-worker
- mining is the industry with the highest average number of harassers
- almost half (48%) of sexual harassment in the mining industry occurrs in a social area for workers
- with 48%, sexual harassment is likely to be witnessed by someone else in the mining industry (AHRC, 2020, p. 233-234).
In order to ascertain the magnitude of the problem, in July 2021 the Community Development and Justice Standing Committee of the Western Australian Parliament launched an official inquiry in order to determine the prevalence of sexual harassment at FIFO workplaces; the degree of protection against sexual harassment at the workplaces; the adequacy of legislation, regulations, policies and practices; and the response of the industry. ed
In this post, we will briefly present the major findings of the report. Since the issues under scrutiny are intertwined, we will proceed accordingly. Page numbers without any further reference refer to the report. All other references are provided in full.
The Prevalence of Sexual Harassment
The personal evidence presented by 55 mining employees, of which 47 were women, shows that sexual harassment is extremely prevalent all across the industry. While there is not one single type of harassment, the evidence shows that women are confronted with sexual behaviour and misogyny almost on a daily basis. Unwanted physical contacts, sexually charged comments and physical assault force many women into an inferior position that causes physical and psychological problems, leading many to leave the industry altogether.
While many of the described actions likely fall under the category of ‘sexual harassment’ under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984, the report notes that while that may be so, the number of perpetrators remains a minority and that it is especially male co-workers defending women who are subject to sexual harassment (p. 16).
The question remains why women are subject to such a high level of sexual harassment in mining. As such, the report writes “[d]igging holes and then moving and refining extracted materials do not lead to harassment, or offer special opportunities to harass” (p. 21). But over time, a specific mining FIFO ‘culture’ has developed, three elements of which contribute to a wide-spread occurrence of the problem. First, poor behaviour and incivility is widely accepted as being part of the ‘way we do things’. The misuse of alcohol further exacerbates this behaviour. Second, gender inequality has led to stereotypical male dominance and patriarchal power relations while aggression amongst male workers and general disrespect towards women has developed. Third, managers and overseers hold a higher level of power that is being misused to dismiss, promote or reward workers, and especially women (p. 22).
Protection from Sexual Harassment
Until 2021, sexual harassment has not been ranging high on the industry’s agenda. Following the publication of the report of the Australian Human Rights Commission in 2020 (AHRC, 2020), the Minerals Council of Australia (MCA) started to take action with the adoption of a policy on Safe, Healthy and Respectful Workplaces (MCA, 2021a) in January 2021. While the policy itself does not refer to sexual harassment, it nevertheless, rather broadly, commits to “safety, health and psychological wellbeing of its workforce” (ibid.). In the wake of the AHRC report, the MCA furthermore issued a Commitment to Eliminating Sexual Harassment (MCA, 2021b) in which it aims to “develop an industry response that recognises and prevents sexual harassment and empowers people to speak up and take action where behaviours do not meet expected standards” (ibid.). In July 2021, the MCA presented an Industry Code on Eliminating Sexual Harassment (MCA, 2021c).
In the Code, the MCA follows a two-tiered approach. On the one hand, it aims to take preventive measures through awareness and education; cultural and governance frameworks; leadership and work environment. On the other hand, it presents response measures through support and protection; investigation of concerns and/or incidents; consequences; and communication. Also the Chamber of Minerals and Energy (CME) responded by forming a Working Group on Safe and Respectful Behaviours.
In order to improve the safety of the workplaces, companies vowed to invest significant amounts of money. BHP, for instance, noted that it would invest AU$300 million to improve safety and security in their facilities. Also alcohol policies were changed in the wake of the findings of the AHRC report by restricting its use throughout mining facilities. While that may be so, it is especially large companies that are able to financially improve safety. Medium- and small-sized companies do not necessarily have the financial means to respond in this way.
While these measures were taken and commitments uttered, realities on the ground still look rather different. While managers and staff were trained to prevent sexual harassment, in many instances this training has not been applied adequately due to a lack of recognition of the seriousness of sexual harassment.
Support for Victims
While in the commitments to eliminate sexual harassment companies and the MCA have expressed their support for the victims, this support cannot (yet) be found on the ground. Instead of supporting victims throughout the process, the report notes that companies are rather interested in safeguarding their own reputation than providing adequate support for the victims. This translates into victims no reporting any assault, but rather keeping it to themselves.
As a consequence, underreporting of instances presents a major problem in the industry, thereby veiling the prevalence of the problem. The AHRC (2020, p. 70) already noted in 2020 that “fewer than one in five people (17%) said they made a formal complaint in relation to sexual harassment” and that “[o]f those who made a formal complaint, almost half (45%) said nothing changed at their workplace as a result.” There are several reasons for underreporting. Inter alia, psychological or emotional impact of experiencing sexual harassment; fear of negative impacts on personal reputations and relationships; fear of being victimised or labelled ‘trouble makers’; or fears for loss of immediate shifts and income, as well as longer-term career options (p. 68).
Even though many of the mining companies do have a reporting system in place, victims are often not content, or even frustrated, with the way their reports have been handled. Either the reports were not investigated or the complaints were dismissed. Again, the protection of the reputation of a company appears to be more important than providing adequate support for victims. Since many victims therefore abstain from reporting, the report highlights the importance of bystanders and third parties to report as well. This could increase awareness amongst managers and decision-makers and increasingly shift attention towards the problem.
While company-related safety measures and work culture are one issue, another is the complex interplay of national and state laws that aim to eliminate sexual harassment through anti-discrimination, employment, and workplace health and safety clauses: On a national level these can be found in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984, the Fair Work Act 2009, and the Model Work Health and Safety Act 2011. In Western Australia, the key legislation is the Equal Opportunity Act 1984, the Mines Safety and Inspection Act 1984, and the Work Health and Safety Act 2020 (WHS Act).
Especially on the state level, urgent improvements are necessary. As a response to the report by the AHRC, the Department of Mines, Industry Regulation and Safety (DMIRS) passed Western Australia’s Work Health and Safety Act 2020. While also in this act no explicit mentioning of sexual harassment can be found, it nevertheless aims to improve psychological health, instead of merely health. Through the WA WorkSafe Commissioner, supported by DMIRS, compliance is to be achieved and enforcement guaranteed.
While legislative responses are underway, the report remarks that current legislation does not address sexual harassment in a clear and concise manner. Moreover, sexual harassment should not be considered an HR issue, but rather an issue relating to work, health and safety. This means that regulators should broaden their expertise concerning this problem and establish better means to monitor and investigate cases of sexual assault in mining. Even though the report recognises that recent changes have not fully unfolded their potential, much more work needs to be done to effectively eliminate sexual harassment in the mining industry.
AHRC. (2020). Respect@Work: National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces. Sydney: Australian Human Rights Commission. https://humanrights.gov.au/our-work/sex-discrimination/publications/respectwork-sexual-harassment-national-inquiry-report-2020.
Government of Western Australia. (2021). Industry Activity Indicator. https://www.dmp.wa.gov.au/About-Us-Careers/Latest-Resources-Investment-4083.aspx.
MCA. (2021a). MCA Policy Safe, Healthy and Respectful Workplaces. https://www.minerals.org.au/sites/default/files/MCA%20Policy%20-%20Safe,%20healthy%20and%20respectful%20workplaces%202021.pdf.
MCA. (2021b). MCA Commitment to Eliminating Sexual Harassment. https://www.minerals.org.au/sites/default/files/Australian%20minerals%20industry%20commitment%20to%20eliminating%20sexual%20harassment%202021.pdf.
MCA. (2021c). Industry Code on Eliminating Sexual Harassment. https://www.minerals.org.au/sites/default/files/Sexual%20Harassment_Industry%20Code%20of%20Conduct_March%202021.pdf.
Parliament of Western Australia. (2022). Enough is Enough’. Sexual Harassment against Women in the FIFO Mining Industry. Perth: Parliament of Western Australia. https://apo.org.au/sites/default/files/resource-files/2022-06/apo-nid318345.pdf .