The Western Australian COVID-19 vaccine mandate has now come into effect for the resources industry, leaving a minority of workers on indefinite leave and facing unemployment.
The mandate was announced in early October for fly-in, fly-out (FIFO) workers and those across the state’s resources industry, with proof of first doses required by 12:01am on December 1.
Association of Mining and Exploration Companies (AMEC) chief executive officer Warren Pearce said the uptake had been largely promising with only a small number of workers refusing the jab.
“We predict it to have a pretty small impact, as the vast majority of our employees have gotten vaccinated,” Pearce told Australian Mining.
“Some of those have done so reluctantly but have done so in accordance with the mandate.”
AMEC represents over 400 mining companies from around Australia, giving Pearce a good ear for the industry’s response to the controversial mandate.
He said while only a small portion of the workforce had refused the jab thus far, the number of people now out of work was still important.
“I’ve been talking to our members for the last four to six weeks about how many people are going to opt out,” Pearce said.
“We estimate it to be less than 1 per cent. Now, that’s not insignificant but will that mean shutdowns to operations? No. We will find ways to keep on going.”
The Chamber of Minerals & Energy (CME) chief executive Paul Everingham said vaccination was not a one-size-fits-all scenario and approaches to the issue would differ from person to person and business to business.
“Anecdotal evidence in the lead-up to the December 1 deadline has indicated the wide majority of the WA mining and resource sector’s workforce is either already fully vaccinated or in the process of becoming so,” Everingham said.
“In the case of a worker not vaccinated by December 1, companies will work with them on a case-by-case basis in relation to their role and employment outcomes.”
The Western Australian mining industry employs almost 150,000 people, meaning a missing 1 per cent will play a part in the state’s ongoing labour shortage issues.
It has been estimated that Western Australia will require an additional 40,000 more resources employees by 2023 – a figure that won’t be helped by up to 15,000 unvaccinated people.
“We’re in a very labour constrained environment, we need all our workers to stay in the industry, we don’t want to lose anybody, and we hope they will come to the decision to get vaccinated,” Pearce said.
Everingham said high vaccination rates will be key to easing border restrictions which have been a key factor in labor shortages during the pandemic.
“One of the reasons CME and its member companies have supported the WA Government mandate and assisted with the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccination program, is that high community vaccination rates will be a primary factor in borders being relaxed, movement of people returning to more normal patterns, and a range of industries across WA getting more access to labour markets interstate and overseas.”
Pearce described the lenient and patient approach used by most major mining companies since the vaccine mandate was announced.
“Companies will approach that in different ways. But in essence, companies are discussing with those who oppose the vaccine or don’t intend to get vaccinated and are trying to encourage them to take some more time to think about it by taking their leave entitlements to stay in the organisation,” he said.
The past few months have seen companies like BHP and Rio Tinto advocate strongly for the vaccination of their workforces.
BHP considered mandatory vaccinations specific to its operations and set up on-site vaccination clinics to make the jab as available as possible.
Rio Tinto partnered with the state government to set up vaccination hubs around the state, targeting remote communities like the town of Tom Price in the Pilbara region.
Pearce highlighted these efforts and said people must now accept their time for deliberating the vaccine is up.
“We can appreciate there will be people who remain reluctant about these things and it’s a really difficult circumstance to have your employment hanging over your head as a consequence of having to make this decision,” Pearce said.
“We’re not unsympathetic, we’ve tried very hard to work with all of our workforce. But in the end, now that we’ve hit December 1, there’s some difficult truths that have to be faced.”
Full vaccination will be expected of resources workers, workers in remote operations or working in rural and remote locations by January 1, 2022.