OPINION: Mining companies hire women but don’t support them

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From the time the first women entered the Queensland coal mining industry in the 1980s, our union has strongly supported women’s right to access the great jobs and career paths available in the industry.

I’m incredibly proud that along with my son, one of my daughters has followed my footsteps into the coal industry. My kids are fourth generation Queensland coal miners.

Mining has traditionally been the most male-dominated industry in Australia, but mining companies are trying to change that with many setting targets for gender representation. Most notably, in 2016 BHP set a goal to have equal representation of men and women at its sites globally by 2025.

While we strongly support the intention of hiring more women in the mining industry, in our experience many mining companies have not matched their ambitious hiring policies with the support women need to thrive in the workplace and succeed in their jobs.

At the most basic level, many women in the mining industry still don’t have access to adequate toilet facilities. Despite the influx of women into the mining industry over the last five to ten years, many mine sites still do not provide toilet facilities that are accessible for women during their shift. Our union recently represented a female member in a large open cut mine who asked to be changed to a circuit with a toilet. An endometriosis sufferer, she sometimes needed to go to the toilet more often and it was less disruptive to production if there was a toilet nearby. She was moved to a circuit with a toilet, but when she asked again on a subsequent shift, she was stood down without pay and had her fitness for work questioned. With the support of the union and her medical specialist, the worker was reinstated and lost wages repaid. But many women are subject to working without access to hygienic toilet facilities and made to feel they are seeking special treatment if they request them. Mining companies with the ability to dig millions of tonnes of coal out of the ground can certainly handle providing clean, accessible toilets to all workers and must be held to account for doing so. 

Many women in our industry are subject to sexual harassment. A recent survey by our union found that over half of women felt sexual harassment was a problem in the industry and many had experienced sexual harassment.

Fifty-six percent of women reported experiencing verbal harassment, 43% had experienced unwelcome sexual advances and 17% had experienced physical acts of sexual assault. However, most women don’t have confidence in employer processes. Only 22% of women believed they would by supported throughout the process if they reported sexual harassment. Only around one-third of women believe there are adequate protections at their worksite. A majority of all workers believed contractors were more vulnerable and less likely to report sexual harassment than permanent employees.

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MEU Women’s conference organisers Jenna Saunders from Blackwater mine and Trudy Helsham from Moorvale mine.

Women are more likely to be employed in labour hire and contract employment, rather than direct employment with mine operators, meaning they have less job security and lower pay on average. For example, BHP counts women employed through labour hire – including its in-house labour hire subsidiary Operations Services – towards its overall gender balance count. If BHP wants to spruik its commitment to women in the industry, they should employ women directly on existing site Enterprise Agreements, with all the pay, conditions, job security and opportunities for career advancement that entails.

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Our union held a successful two-day conference of women members in October, to hear directly from them about these issues and more. As a union, we need to make sure we are putting women’s interests front and centre in bargaining, organising and industrial representation and we are committed to doing so. We have so many impressive women activists across our union and I encourage all women in our industry to consider joining the union and standing up for a fairer, safer, genuinely inclusive industry for all.

Stephen Smyth

Mining and Energy Union Queensland District President

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