Inquiry finds sexual harassment rife at mine sites

Safety helmets and gloves hang rack at construction site

The Western Australian inquiry into sexual harassment in the state has found that the mining industry perpetuated a culture that failed to protect women employees, who continued to face sexual harassment and sexual assault at various sites.

The findings of the year-long investigation into the mining sector were released yesterday following concerns about a culture of sexism and bullying.

Titled ‘Enough is Enough’, the report details how sexual harassment was “generally accepted or overlooked” and describes the “failure” of miners to recognise what was happening in their workplaces.

Female FIFO workers had long complained of sexual harassment in mining camps, temporary accommodation set up at remote mines to house workers.

Inquiry chair Libby Mettam said the inquiry found that women often felt intimidated and fearful and this would be constant throughout their workplace stay, with many presenting “confronting, shocking and compelling stories”.

“When we commenced this inquiry, I knew horrific stories would be brought forward. But I was shocked and appalled well beyond expectation by the size and depth of the problem,” she said.

Examples of the incidents included:

• A woman who had a near-miss incident with a haul truck she was driving was informed the site supervisor told her he would make the safety investigation ‘go away’ if she had sex with him.
• One woman told how she was knocked unconscious in her donga and awoke to find her
jeans and underpants around her ankles.
• Another told that a man forced his hand down her top numerous times in front of other
workers and no one did anything.
• One woman told of a supervisor telling her of sexual jokes and comments being made about her by others. She became upset and the supervisor’s response was to force himself on her, kissing and hugging her.

Mettam said 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,” she said.

“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.”

The report, which contained 24 recommendations, said a broad range of unlawful and criminal behaviour had been ignored or overlooked by employers.

The committee called for the establishment of a forum to document victims’ experiences, and explore opportunities for redress, such as formal apologies and compensation.

Other recommendations included an industry-wide register to stop perpetrators from being rehired at other sites or companies, and the implementation of moderate drinking standards at all remote accommodation sites.

Mettam noted mining companies had pointed to incidents where they had taken decisive action including dismissal for workplace sexual offences. Individuals, however, pointed to incidents where perpetrators had merely changed worksites or were re-employed in the industry with a different company.

“We have recommended that government explore options which could operate effectively and fairly to prevent habitual sexual harassment offenders continuing to be re-employed in the mining workplace,” she said.

During the inquiry, the WA Police Force said it had investigated 23 reports of sexual assaults on mine sites over the past two years. But the report said that while the Police did have the primary role in investigating criminal aspects of sexual assault on mines sites, the responsibility for ensuring a safe workplace – including being free from sexual harassment and assault – sat with mining companies and the safety regulator.

Mining companies which made submissions included BHP, Rio Tinto and Fortescue Metals Group, most of them acknowledging that sexual harassment is rife at mining camps in Western Australia, and promising reforms.

The Minerals Council of Australia welcomed the release of the report and reinforced its commitment to eliminating sexual harassment in the sector.

MCA chief executive officer Liz Constable said the Australian mining industry’s core value and commitment was the safety, health and psychological wellbeing of its workforce, where everyone who goes to work returns home safe and healthy.

“The minerals industry has made substantial progress over the past two years on addressing sexual harassment in the industry, with the MCA Respect@Work Taskforce delivering a number of actions,” she said. These included:

  • A new safety and health policy to specifically incorporate psychological harm and respectful behaviours (January 2021)
  • Explicitly commitment to eliminate sexual harassment in workplaces (January 2021)
  • Adoption of a National Industry Code on eliminating sexual harassment (July 2021)
  • A comprehensive toolkit of resources to support industry (December 2021).

Last month, the MCA hosted a CEO Respect@Work Forum, bringing together more than 40 CEOs and leaders from the Australian mining industry to share progress in tackling sexual harassment in the workplace, and ensure the industry’s commitments to eliminating this abhorrent behavior is met with real and tangible action.

Constable said the MCA recognised, however, that the industry had a long way to go to eliminate sexual harassment across its workplaces and would continue to support members achieve this critical reform and undertake further actions, including:

  • Embedding the National Industry Code on eliminating sexual harassment
  • Holding regular CEO-led discussions
  • Developing clear expectations on hiring and promotion of candidates with shared values about respectful workplaces
  • Developing guidance on sharing information on incidents across the industry, and preventing terminated employees moving across the industry
  • Delivering a series of webinars to support embedding of the national industry code.

More reading

Expert to review sexual harassment protocols

About Ray Chan

Editor of industrial titles and mastheads with Prime Creative Media. Publications include Rail Express and Australian Mining (web content).

To keep up to date with Australian Mining, subscribe to our free email newsletters delivered straight to your inbox. Click here.