Australian mining companies warn that a skilled labour shortage could result in lower production for the next few years and could increase costs, especially in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. According to the Australian Resources and Energy Employer Association (AREEA), the mining industry would need 24,000 additional workers by 2026, but it will struggle to find these new workers.

“Our industry is battling the worst skills crisis in a generation,” said Steve Knott, AREEA chief executive, in a press release. “Unless industry and government can find some creative solutions, the skills crisis facing not only the resources and energy industry but all sectors of the Australian economy will persist for years to come.”

More than 250,000 Australians are employed in the mining sector, and it accounts for 10% of the country’s GDP. During a meeting with Western Australian industry figures to discuss the right labour market, Madeleine King, minister for resources and Northern Australia, said that one way to address the skills shortages is to attract more women to the sector.

However, to improve gender diversity in the sector, the mining industry will first need to deal with an entrenched culture of sexual harassment and unsafe working environments, something that the minister also acknowledges.

“The resources industry needs to take serious steps to increase female participation in the workplace,” said King. “Governments and industry must work together to ensure we have safe and inclusive workplaces that welcome and encourage women to have rewarding careers in the mining sector.”

Sexual harassment and power abuse in Australian mining

A Western Australian Parliamentary inquiry from June 2022 revealed “abhorrent and systemic” patterns of workplace behaviour and sexual harassment against women in the fly-in-fly-out mining industry. The 178-page report details how sexual harassment is generally accepted or overlooked in these typically remote and isolated communities, and a culture of cover-ups exists.

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“There were stories of sex dolls put in front of women’s dongas, and sex toys hung on their doors. Stories of unsolicited and unwelcome sexual attention, stalking, texting of explicit and lewd material, and horrifying stories of sexual assault,” chair Elizabeth Mettam wrote in the introduction of the report.

“We heard details of unwanted touching, sexual comments, provocative photo requests and grooming. We heard of powerplay behaviour known as ‘shovelling’ where iron ore would be dumped on the cab of trucks operated by women if they didn’t comply with sexual requests. These stories and the others we heard illustrate the full range of behaviours that make up sexual harassment and sexual assault as well providing examples of general incivility – which is well-recognised as a precursor to worse behaviour.”

A survey by the Mining & Energy Union, also published in June, asked mine workers in Queensland about their experiences in the workplace. Nearly one in four workers said they experienced or witnessed sexual harassment, showing it disproportionally affects women. According to the report,17% of female workers experienced physical acts of sexual assault, compared to 2% of male workers, and 43% experienced unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favours and unwanted physical contact, compared to 4% of male workers.

Private companies have also recognised the need to improve the sector’s performance. As the Western Australian state Parliamentary inquiry was in progress, Rio Tinto released a report on workplace culture in February 2022, showing the prevalence of sexual harassment, bullying, and racism, with significantly elevated rates among minorities.

Of the 10,000 employees who responded to the Rio Tinto survey, almost half said they had been bullied, sexually harassed, or victims of racial discrimination, while more than a fifth of women reported a rape, attempted rape, or sexual assault in the past five years.

A failure to recognise

The companies involved in the Western Australian report all expressed surprise at the results, including mining giants such as BHP, Rio Tinto, and Fortescue, suggesting that, in public at least, this remains news to some of the industry’s biggest actors. In turn, the authors of the report said they are shocked by the surprised reactions of the industry. While companies are already making commitments to improve work culture, much still needs to be done.

“We believe the failure to recognise what was happening in their workplaces is a sign of corporate failure that companies and the industry cannot avoid or downplay,” reads the report.

In 2018, a national survey of workplace sexual harassment pointed to mining as one of the top five industries in Australia where workers experience the most sexual harassment, showing that these abuses are nothing new in the sector. According to the survey, 40% of people working in mining experienced workplace sexual harassment in the five years before the survey. For women specifically, mining is the industry with the second-highest rate of harassment, with an estimated 74% of women victims of  these abuses.

A 2020 report looking into the results of the survey, shows that male-dominated workplaces have a higher prevalence of sexual harassment. A workplace can be considered male-dominated when there is an unequal gender ratio, when senior leadership is predominantly male, or when jobs are performed by women that are considered ‘atypical’ for their gender.

The mining industry has traditionally been one of the most male-dominated industries in Australia. According to the latest figures from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, around one-fifth of the workforce in mining is female. The same agency recorded a gender pay gap in mining of 16% in 2022, which is higher than the Australian national average of 14.1%.

The share of female workers has improved over the years; female participation in mining was around 11% in 1997 according to a study by the University of Queensland. Yet there is a chicken-and-egg situation with regard to addressing this imbalance in the future. While improving the gender balance should improve workplace culture – as well as offer some relief in the tight labour market – it seems unlikely significantly more women would want to enter an industry where sexual harassment is so prevalent.

Cultural, system and legislate changes

As part of the Western Australian Parliamentary inquiry, the authors offered recommendations for industry and government to tackle the issue. These include establishing a forum to hear, document, acknowledge and report the experiences of victims, making sure that there are serious repercussions for perpetrators, and actively reducing risks that create environments that allow sexual harassment to persist.

For the latter point, they would like to see limitations in alcohol consumption at the camp accommodations as well as the implementation of improved security measures, steps that could make a tangible difference in the short-term.

The Queensland report shares similar recommendations, with both reports emphasizing the importance of establishing an adequate reporting agency and making sure that perpetrators face repercussions, both for sexual harassment as well as wider cases of harassment and bullying.

Employees made clear that they have little trust in management when it comes to reporting incidents and that when perpetrators do face some consequences for their actions, they would be moved to other worksites or reemployed with a different company, allowing them to continue harassment at other sites.

“It is time to come together to make the cultural, system and legislate changes requires to equip, prepare and educate the workforce,” said Elizabeth Mettam. “To move the culture of mining workplaces to one where understanding, preventing and appropriately dealing with incidents of workplace sexual harassment is the practised norm.

“Where lifting the lid on sexual harassment is considered everyone’s business and taken seriously as a responsibility.”