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March 21, 2022updated 04 Jul 2022 3:14pm

“Deeply disturbing” – the cult of bullying in Rio Tinto and beyond

In an industry first, Rio Tinto has reviewed workplace culture and psychological safety, offering quantifiable examples of abuse at its sites.

By Scarlett Evans

Rio Tinto released its report on workplace culture at the beginning of this year, with the survey conducted by Australia’s former sex discrimination commissioner Elizabeth Broderick. Of the survey’s 10,000 respondents, almost half said that they had been bullied, sexually harassed, or victims of racial discrimination, while 21 women reported a rape, attempted rape, or sexual assault in the past five years. In addition, respondents spoke of a ‘culture of silence’ that keeps reports of these incidents low and perpetuates cycles of harassment.  

While the results may indeed be disturbing, Rio is not alone in seeing a work environment conducive to harassment and bullying. As part of a separate inquiry into mining sites in Western Australia, BHP reported that between July 2019 and July 2021 there were 18 cases of rape, attempted rape, or “non-consensual touching of a sexual nature” at its operations.  

Rio Tinto has been applauded for taking the initial steps to shed light on the extent of the problem, however true praise is being reserved for when actions follow findings. While the major’s response is yet to be seen, one thing for certain is that these investigations only scratch the surface of this problem, and Rio Tinto’s report is hopefully a sign that more inquiry is to follow.  

Rio’s report 

Launched in March last year, Rio Tinto’s workplace review was one of the first acts of new chief executive Jakob Stausholm, who took over from Jean-Sebastien Jacques after the company’s destruction of 46,000 year old Juukan Gorge caves in 2020 – an act that has left the company struggling to regain public approval.   

The decision to go public with the report may well be a step in repairing its reputation through admitting its failings, with Broderick writing that the decision to commission the study demonstrated a commitment to “increased transparency, accountability, and action”.  

Even having the figures to illuminate the problem is a major step forward, and geologist Susan Lomas, founder of the organisation Mine Shift (recently renamed from the Me Too Mining Association), says that it’s a win for the fight against workplace harassment.  

“This report is groundbreaking for us,” she says. “We’ve known intuitively that these problems are there, but we’ve never really had mining specific numbers on workplace inappropriate behaviours before. Lots of mining companies talk about their equity, diversity, and inclusion goals, but they don’t look at the workplace culture as much as this report has done.” 

Yet as Professor John Scott, head of the School of Justice at the University of Queensland says, “acknowledging the problem is the easy part” and while Stausholm said that Rio would implement all 26 recommendations included at the end of Broderick’s report, the road to change is long.  

“Reinventing culture is something that takes resources, dedication, and time,” Scott says.  “This is about wide-scale cultural change and people are always resistant to change. It also involves people giving up some status and power and redistributing that power to marginalised groups. That’s never easy and there will be resistance to it.” 

In particular, the male-dominated and hierarchical nature of mining makes it a culture ripe for machismo and gender-based discrimination (though instances of harassment against men are also prevalent). A 2018 national survey of workplace sexual harassment listed mining as one of the top five industries in Australia for pervasiveness of workplace sexual harassment, and the second worst for women. 

As Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins says: “A broad shift in the culture of the mining industry is urgently needed.” 

Isolation and “mateship” 

While Rio’s report saw instances of bullying across the workforce, transient worker sites were some of the worst, with 56% of women surveyed saying they were bullied and 43% reporting sexual harassment.  

A survey of fly-in-fly-out (FIFO) workers in Western Australia, conducted by the union group Western Mine Workers Alliance, also found that 22% of women had been offered career advancement or other work benefits in return for sex, while 22.9% said they had been sexually assaulted at work. 

“Many settler societies…reinforce codes of mateship, which can be very supportive of workers in terms of experiencing isolation and boredom when away from home, but can also have a dark side,” says Scott. “There is a whole politics to mateship that defines who belongs and who doesn’t. It can be a positive thing when it values safe and supporting environments, but it is also exclusionary, especially with regard to women.” 

“People who have strong social connections tend to abide by rules and treat others with respect,” he adds. “Social integration means things like being involved with other social groups and having intimate connections to others, and being embedded in a place.  

“FIFO tends to counter all this. I think it is that lack of attachment, that lack of intimacy with the environment around you and others that makes it easier to behave badly. If you don’t feel connected to others and to a place, you are less likely to respect these things.” 

With many of the circumstances that perpetuate the culture of bullying systemic ones, there is the question of how we can even begin to rewire such ingrained behaviour and enact meaningful change.  

How can we change? 

In a piece published by Jenkins in 2020 on sexual harassment, she writes that change is only possible if “momentum is coupled with awareness of the facts surrounding sexual harassment in Australian workplaces”. 

Rio’s report acts as the first step in the right direction, but now that we have a starting point providing figures on instances of harassment, what’s next? According to Lomas, ensuring there are bottom-up solutions in place as well as top-down is crucial moving forwards.  

“So many policies come from the top down, and while that’s important, it leaves out the workers,” she says. “You need that common language within the operations and it has to be bottom-up so that everybody feels that they have a responsibility.” 

In particular, she says bystander intervention training has significant results in preventing bullying. 

“We focused on bystander intervention training with our digger program, and we found that those skills are not only effective on sexual harassment but also that people who have experienced racism and bullying can be helped by bystander intervention,” she says. “We know that if bystanders are active in a workplace, bullies and racists are no longer supported and the workplace culture has a chance to shift to being more positive.” 

Prioritising diversity throughout operations is also a route to addressing racial and gender imbalances, though it is again acknowledged that this is not a quick fix.  

“It’s a multifaceted approach, and it’s not going to happen overnight obviously,” Lomas says. “Increasing diversity in gender, race, and gender identity will of course help to change things, but it’s also about opening up the space to have these conversations, for men to talk about these things as well as women. Breaking the cycle in this way is very important.” 

While breaking such a deep-seated and long-held cycle is no mean feat, Rio Tinto has given voice and evidence to an issue that has, until now, been swept under the rug. It is only through realising and quantifying the scope of the problem that companies can begin to see a shift and while the road may be long, Rio Tinto has at least started the journey. 

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