The latest figures from the federal government forecaster confirm the importance of coal to Australia’s economy. Australia’s the world’s biggest exporter of metallurgical coal and much of it comes from Queensland’s Bowen Basin. Australia is the second biggest exporter of thermal coal and even a ban from China hasn’t dampened international demand.
Record prices of over $400 a tonne are seeing export earnings from coal skyrocket over the year ahead, along with profits of mining companies. Across the Queensland coalfields, mine operators are seeking to produce as much coal as possible at these prices. Many are struggling to find enough workers to meet production demands.
However while the industry complains of ‘skills shortages’; the real story is that mining companies are struggling to find workers because they have spent more than a decade driving down pay and conditions of the jobs they’re offering.
If mining companies were offering permanent jobs on union-negotiated site agreements and investing in their training and skills development, they would have no shortage of willing takers. When companies like BHP offer permanent EA jobs, there is incredibly strong demand.
But instead of doing this, mining companies have outsourced a majority of jobs in the industry to labour hire companies on pay and conditions minimally above the Black Coal Mining Industry Award. This creates division within mine sites with workers in the same crew doing the same job often on vastly different conditions. Labour hire mineworkers usually earn around one-third less and have little to no job security.
With so much work in the industry at the moment and so little loyalty offered by mining companies; labour hire mineworkers can’t be blamed for seeking a better deal elsewhere, or deciding that the long hours, difficult conditions and time away from family simply aren’t for them.
The trend towards outsourcing jobs in the coal industry to labour hire also compromises safety. Labour hire coal miners are just as professional and hard-working as permanents; however they often lack the security and support to raise safety issues, especially when high coal prices mean increased pressure on production.
During the recent federal election campaign, our union campaigned strongly for permanent jobs and for Same Job Same Pay for labour hire workers. Same Job Same Pay laws mean that labour hire workers couldn’t be employed on worse terms than employees covered by a site Enterprise Agreement, where they are performing the same work. We are confident that Same Job Same Pay laws will result in real wage increases for labour hire workers and an increase in direct, permanent employees as the cost incentive to outsource jobs is removed.
The election of the Federal Labor Government means we can now look forward to progress on Same Job Same Pay. New Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and new Industrial Relations Minister Tony Burke have committed to introducing this reform in the first term of government and we will hold them to account for doing so.
While we need fairer workplace laws such as Same Job Same Pay to bring mining companies into line, the best way to improve conditions at a mine site is through building union density.
Even with coal prices smashing all records, mining companies will always cry poor and never give workers more than they have to. Collective action through the union is the only way workers have ever improved their pay, conditions and safety. The Mining and Energy Union is here to support all workers in the coal industry, whether permanent or contractor, and we encourage readers to look us up.
Mining and Energy Union Queensland District President