OPINION: Shameful Anniversary of Casuals Sell-out

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On 18 March it was one year since a parliamentary vote in Canberra that left many Hunter Valley coal miners gutted. After years of courting the mining vote, One Nation Senator Malcolm Roberts and his colleague Pauline Hanson backed the Morrison Government’s IR Omnibus Bill which cut rights and entitlements for casual miners.

The Bill had been dramatically reduced in scope as the Government failed to win cross-bench support on a range of measures, but One Nation and the Liberal National Government were determined to overturn court wins to stamp out ‘permanent casual’ employment model in mining.

That vote on 18 March 2021 sparked outcry in the Hunter Valley, including from One Nation’s candidate for Hunter Stuart Bonds who was subsequently booted out of the party for criticising the Senators’ actions. Bonds recently posted on social media that One Nation voting for IR Omnibus Bill was ‘the stupidest political move ever made’.

It was certainly a costly political move for long-term casual miners, many of whom were eligible to claim up to tens of thousands in unpaid entitlements.

Landmark Federal Court wins by our Union in the WorkPac v Skene and WorkPac v Rossato matters in 2018 and 2020 had found that the ‘permanent casual’ work model widely used by labour hire companies in the mining industry was in fact unlawful.

The court ruled twice that coal miners with regular full-time with lengthy advance rosters were actually permanent, because there was nothing irregular or intermittent about their work.

Our Union launched a class action for affected members who were long-term WorkPac casuals, aiming to recoup nearly $20 million in leave entitlements for about 900 members. Other class actions for casual miners were also launched by private funders.

But instead of advocating for justice for long-term casual miners who had not received their lawful entitlements, the Morrison Government and One Nation changed the law to make sure they could claim nothing.

The new legislation met the demands of employers by introducing a retrospective definition of ‘casual’ based on the words in the employment contract not the reality of the work arrangement. This move pulled the rug out from under the class actions and long-term casual miners’ hopes for justice.

We all know how important the coal mining industry is for jobs in our region. But many mining companies have embraced outsourcing, where they employ coal mineworkers through labour hire companies on lower wages. It’s a way for them to get around the good Enterprise Agreements that coal miners have bargained for fair and square over decades, which provide fair pay and comprehensive conditions reflecting the tough conditions they work in and the value of the resource they produce.

That parliamentary vote on 18 March last year has changed the political landscape in the Hunter Valley with many coal miners unable to forgive One Nation for the vote that they consider to be a betrayal.

There are plenty of politicians who say they are for mining. They dress up as coal miners to try and win their votes. But coal miners are sick of being used as props. Coal miners want real action to improve their working lives and they want political representatives that can stand up to mining companies, not just suck up to them.

‘Same Job Same Pay’ laws for labour hire workers would be a good start. In coal mining, it would mean a company like BHP can’t just get around their existing site EAs and employ people through labour hire companies on little more than the Award. It would stamp out the business model of outsourcing and incentivise direct employment.

A definition of casual in the Fair Work Act that reflects the Skene and Rossato Federal Court judgments is also essential. This would mean that employers must provide permanent entitlements if workers are employed in long-term jobs.

Our mining companies should hang their heads in shame that so many of their loyal employees have been casual for years on end. It is not unusual for mineworkers to become eligible for long service leave while they wait for a permanent job. 

These are the changes we are campaigning for this federal election. We don’t just want photo ops and dress ups, we want permanent jobs with rights and entitlements for coal miners. 

Robin Williams

District President MEU Northern Mining and NSW Energy

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