‘Horrific’ incidents revealed in Australia mining inquiry

The inquiry into sexual harassment was ordered after numerous allegations from women in the mining industry.

Excavators and trucks load and move nickel ore in Townsville, Queensland, Australia
The inquiry found that many workers became victims of bosses and colleagues on remote projects [File: Eric Taylor/Bloomberg]

A landmark inquiry into Australia’s mining sector has uncovered dozens of shocking cases of sexual harassment and abuse of women workers at companies including BHP Group and Rio Tinto Group.

The Western Australia government report released Thursday described “horrific” incidents at the workplaces, which it labeled both a failure of the industry and an oversight by government. Among recommendations were the payment of compensation to the many workers who became victims of bosses and colleagues on remote projects.

“I was shocked and appalled well beyond expectation by the size and depth of the problem,” Libby Mettam, chair of the inquiry said in the report. “To hear the lived reality of the taunts, attacks and targeted violence, the devastation and despair the victims experienced, the threats to or loss of their livelihood that resulted was shattering and completely inexcusable.”

The inquiry into sexual harassment was ordered after numerous allegations from women in the so-called Fly In-Fly Out mining industry, where employers transport their workers to and from remote areas.

Among the allegations of abuse revealed in the report were:

  • A woman involved in a safety issue was told by a supervisor she could “make the issue go away” if she had sex with him
  • Another was knocked unconscious in her room and woke up undressed with her jeans around her ankles
  • Another described how a man forced his hands down her top several times in front of other workers and “no one did anything”
  • After complaining about colleagues making sexual jokes about her, a woman said her supervisor’s response was to “force himself on her”
  • Sex dolls and toys placed in women’s sleeping quarters; stalking, texting, provocative photo requests
  • “Shoveling”, where iron ore was dumped inside the vehicles of women drivers who didn’t comply with sexual requests

“This represents a failure of the industry to protect its workers and raises real questions about why government was not better across this safety issue,” said Mettam.

The report revealed that between July 1, 2019, and June 30, 2021, BHP Group recorded 91 reports of alleged sexual harassment or assault, 79 of which were “substantiated.” Rio Tinto, from January 2020 to August 2021, received 51 complaints of sexual harassment or assault in FIFO operations, including one “substantiated” report of sexual assault and 29 “substantiated” reports of sexual harassment.

“Rio will closely study the report’s recommendations,” Rio’s iron ore chief Simon Trott said in an emailed statement. “The courage of people coming forward to tell their stories has been critical in terms of shining a light on behaviours that must change within our company and our industry.”

Chevron will also review the findings and the inquiry has “provided a critical opportunity to learn, act and improve,” the company said in a statement.

Allegations of abuse were also received at projects operated by Woodside Petroleum, Fortescue Metals Group, and Chevron Corp.

BHP, Fortescue and Woodside didn’t immediately respond to requests to comment on the details of the report.

In Western Australia, a resource-rich state four times the size of France that’s the center of a massive iron ore industry, remote mines that can only be accessed through flights by FIFO workers have been especially risky for women. They remain largely male-dominated, with workers living in camp-style accommodation.

A report commissioned by Rio Tinto and released in February showed more than a quarter of its female workers have experienced sexual harassment and almost half of all staff have been victims of bullying. Larger rival BHP last year said it fired 48 workers at its sites in Western Australia since 2019 after verifying allegations of harassment.

The Western Australian government should “consider establishing a forum to hear, document and acknowledge the experiences of victims of historical workplace sexual harassment,” the report recommended. “Part of this process could include exploring opportunities for redress, such as formal apologies from companies and/or perpetrators and appropriate compensation.”

Other recommendations in the report, which are expected to be accepted by the state government, include:

  • Ensuring mining and other resources companies enforce serious repercussions, including dismissal, for any person who has attempted to seek sexual favors for advantage and that all proper legal actions will be taken against them;
  • The industry must explore ways to prevent perpetrators of serious sexual harassment simply finding reemployment on other sites and in other companies
  • The mining and resources industry must establish acceptable standards for accommodation facilities, including security and other safety measures

“We were told how sexual harassment is generally accepted or overlooked, of the abuse of positions of power, serious breaches of codes of conduct, and a culture of cover-up,” Mettam said. “It is simply shocking this could be taking place in the 21st Century in one of the state’s most lucrative industries.”

Source: Bloomberg