The driverless trains and trucks of Rio Tinto’s Mine of the Future program are the source of much excitement in the Pilbara.
But beyond the hype the company’s workers are increasingly worried the advancements signal the beginning of the end for their jobs and livelihoods.
In the public arena Rio Tinto has run a standard line assuring employees won’t lose jobs and the advancements will instead result in job creation.
But the unions, to no great surprise, have accused the company of lying to workers and using automation to cut labour costs and reduce personnel.
Earlier this year boutique firm BAEconomics joined Rio’s mantra, releasing a report, bankrolled by Rio Tinto, that reinforced the company line.
While the report strengthened the pro-automation arsenal, it was dismissed by unions as self-serving modeling used to back Rio’s cause.
In short the CFMEU accused BAEconomics of hiring themselves out to say whatever the company wanted.
Just the facts
In an interview with Australian Mining BAEconomics managing director Brian Fisher said the report was an attempt to turn the automation debate towards a fact-based discussion.
“Rio commissioned us to stimulate debate about this technology so we can have a full, proper, and transparent debate,” he said.
At its core the pro-automation argument of BAEconomics is quite simple.
They argue that automation will be good for business, and what’s good for business boosts industry expansions and job creation.
“People will be fearful about the potential for losing their jobs,” Fisher said.
“But what they should be concerned about is making sure the industry is competitive with international competitors.”
CFMEU Western Australia mining secretary Gary Wood told Australian Mining Fisher’s report could not be trusted.
“He’s talking nonsense, and justifying a report commissioned and paid for by Rio Tinto,” he said.
“There is a lot of bias in his report.”
Fisher told Australian Mining “community acceptance” would be one of the biggest challenges companies faced in the broader rollout of automation.
He said it was important people understood the technology wouldn’t mean workers would lose their jobs overnight.
“What we have with automation is a smooth continuous process not a radical change,” he said.
“The demand for truck drivers is high and workers currently driving trucks will continue to do so.
“It’s more about new people coming into the system and the jobs they’ll have, not displacing people and telling them to get different jobs if they’re already employed.”
Fisher said automation would make machinery more efficient and in doing so make the mining industry larger.
“You need to weigh up the questions of how many truck drivers would be lost in a mine versus the total number of people in the industry,” he said.
“Some positions may go but there will be more people in aggregate.”
Aside from the economic benefit BAEconomics said automation would have a positive social impact by removing workers from the harshest mining environments.
“Despite the industry already being extremely focused on safety the mere fact that you’ve got machinery around makes it a dangerous environment,” he said.
“If you can move people away from these high risk areas it makes operations safer and means there’s less people getting hurt.”
But Wood told Australian Mining Fisher was “grasping at straws” with the safety argument.
“He should research the amount of truck drivers that have been killed in the last ten to 15 years,” he said.
“It’s nonsense. Where the fatalities happen are in the workshops where people work on the machinery, and with autonomous trucks that will continue to be the case.”
Fisher said automation’s shift to moving workers to a control office off-site would do away with the reliance on fly-in fly-out work and the health problems that were associated with it.
“Moving people to operations centres means they’re closer to home, which is better for family life,” he said.
“That should make for generally better social circumstances.”
But Wood again hit back over the claims.
“It may move people off site, but this will be to mundane jobs with significantly less income,” he said.
“The facts are workers will suffer significant losses as a result of this.”
“It will be job losses and losses in income.”
Come clean on skills
Perhaps the most anti-intuitive argument put forward by BAEconomics was that automation would simultaneously create jobs while helping companies struggling with the skill shortage.
On this Wood accused the company of contradicting itself and said it was time people “came clean” on the skills shortage.
He said Rio Tinto should be investing in training workers to fill new roles instead of spending millions on autonomous technology.
“If you want to talk about the skills shortage then let’s call a spade a spade,” he said.
“It’s only the Rio Tinto’s and Gina Rinehart’s of this world that are saying we’ve a skills shortage.”
“Many Australians would love a chance to work in the mining industry, so it’s a fallacy to say there’s not enough workers out there.”
“Maybe with the higher skilled positions this is true, but not for the lower skilled work.”
Wood said Rio Tinto CEO Tom Albanese had already said the company was looking to reduce labour costs and automation was at the forefront of this move.
While automation adeptly forms part of Rio’s Mine of the Future program there are already researchers looking beyond the technology.
In his report Fisher said “adaptive robotics” using artificial intelligence was the ultimate endgame of automation but it wasn’t a direct concern for miners.
“That is more of a focus at the moment in research labs and universities,” he said.
“It’s probably not something we’re looking at for the mining industry over the next 30 or 40 years.”
In the much closer future Fisher said important changes would have to come from outside the industry.
“There’s a need to adapt and we’re already starting to see that with demand for new courses,” he said.
“There are already discussions going on in universities in Queensland on how to facilitate this new technology.”
“People are starting to act on it already and it makes sense, as there are already automated trucks and drill rigs on Australian mines.”
But Fisher said there were still many unknowns moving forward.
He said until the broader rollout of automation happened it would be difficult to know what impact it had on the workforce and industry.
“We haven’t thought of all the issues, and new problems are bound to surface when you organise the workplace in a different way,” he said.
“It’s fairly hard to contemplate that until you start.”
While Rio is aggressively pushing the technology, companies like BHP Billiton and Fortescue Metals Group have similar, albeit less developed, plans in mine site automation.
Fisher said it was still unclear how fast the technology would be taken up by other companies.
“We don’t really know how widespread this technology will be in the future, it could be that it takes a long time to spread or it could happen quickly,” he said.
“But before that what we need is a proper debate with communities and governments so people can understand how important this technology will be in the future.”