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MEU Coalface

Queensland One Nation Senator Malcolm Roberts would win gold in the hypocrite Olympics. How many times can one man talk about coal mine worker underpayments while voting against every legislative reform to fix them?

Senator Roberts’ latest trick is calling for a Government Inquiry. This comes just as the Same Job Same Pay laws he voted against are starting to deliver pay rises for labour hire workers in the coal industry.

Any inquiry into coal industry underpayments would find what has been obvious for many years. That is, that mine operators have used labour hire arrangements to cut wages by getting around site enterprise agreements.

We have always agreed with Malcolm Roberts that this is a big problem. Or he has agreed with us, as we’ve been campaigning against this rort for much longer.

Senator Roberts would prefer to attack the union and blame strange conspiracy theories than use his position in Parliament to deliver what has been really needed: fairer work laws.

You don’t need tin-foil-hat conspiracy theories to see that mining companies have used legal loopholes to outsource large parts of their workforce to lower-paid labour hire arrangements to save money. They have been able to get away with this for so long because while it’s unfair, it has not been illegal.

No conspiracy theories are needed to explain labour hire companies seeking their own Enterprise Agreements, to assist them to win contracts. Once a valid EA is in place, workers can’t take any lawful industrial action to improve their conditions for the term of the agreement, usually four years.

The only requirements for an Enterprise Agreement are that at least two employees are covered by it, and it passes a Better Off Overall Test (BOOT) and some procedural steps.

There are many labour hire Enterprise Agreements in the mining industry which don’t breach any laws but still lead to very unfair outcomes.

The BOOT only requires EAs to ensure workers are better off than the Award, not industry standard pay and conditions which are much higher due to successful union collective bargaining.

The FWC regularly approves EAs that allow for casual work, even though casual work is not allowed for under the Black Coal Award. While EAs must be better off ‘overall’ than the Award, under the Fair Work Act they don’t need to contain every Award provision and may contain alternative provisions such as casual work. This is a point Senator Roberts stubbornly misunderstands.

If EAs are voted up by a majority of workers and meet the legal requirements set out by the Fair Work Commission, then generally the Agreement is made and it is valid. The union can’t veto it, even if we believe it is unfair.

Sometimes the union is named in labour hire EAs so we have the right to represent union members covered by it. We may negotiate on behalf of members or recommend a vote for or against. However, EAs only become valid by being voted up by a majority of employees and approved by the Fair Work Commission – the union plays no role in their approval.

While accusing the union of somehow playing a role in mine worker underpayments, Senator Roberts and One Nation have used their position in Parliament to consistently vote against laws to support permanent jobs and pay rises; like Same Job Same Pay laws for labour hire workers and stronger rights for casuals. Most shamefully – or shamelessly – in 2021 he voted with the Morrison Government to remove court-recognised rights for casual coal miners in long-term, full-time roles to receive leave entitlements. This put a stop to class actions set to deliver millions in unpaid entitlements to labour hire coal miners.

So Senator Roberts can bang on about investigations and conspiracies all he likes.

We know there’s a wages scandal in coal mining and we are getting on with the job of fixing it by fighting for permanent jobs and using the Albanese Government’s Same Job Same Pay laws to win wage justice for labour hire workers.

Mitch Hughes

President Mining and Energy Union Queensland District

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