Rio chief warns of increasing union action over ‘trivial issues’

 Rio Tinto CEO Tom Albanese has backed up Colin Barnett’s claims that industrial action in mining is often based on ‘trivial issues’, adding that Australian miners are paid double what US miners earn.

Albanese warned that ‘militant type relationships’ and aggressive stances by unions threaten mining companies’ performances and future, according to The West Australian.

His comments come as the ABS announces a record number of industrial disputes for the September quarter.

Sixty-six disputes took place in the September quarter 2011, ABS figures revealed. This was 13 more than in the June quarter 2011.

September quarter figures also showed that the number of employees involved in industrial disputes was 66,400, an increase from 14,700 in the June quarter 2011.

A reported 101,300 working days were lost due to industrial disputation in the September quarter 2011, which is an increase from 66,200 in the June quarter 2011.

The coal mining industry had the highest number of working days lost per thousand employees (155.8 days lost) for the quarter.

"I think that we have a risk in Australia that the aggressive IR (industrial relations) agenda against the companies could further reduce productivity in an environment of very high wages," Albanese told the ABC on Sunday.

"Our average pay in Australia is multiple times that of any other country in the world, even in the US we’re probably paying twice as much for the same worker in Australia as we are in the US without necessarily higher productivity. I fear a situation where if productivity drops off over the next couple of years for any reason, it could be because of the aggressive labour."

However he did stress that historically Rio has had ‘constructive relationships’ with Australian mining unions.

"The unions that come to us and say ‘we can work together and find a way to help’, that is a much better situation than one where we are saying ‘well we don’t like you and we’re going to stand in the way of you being successful’," he said.

Recent legal battles between mining unions and Rio Tinto have seen a change in legislation, with unions warded the right to bargain about future pay and conditions on behalf of workers at Rio Tinto’s Pilbara operations after the Federal Court ruled an existing non-union collective agreement made in 2008 invalid.

Some industry insiders are concerned the decision will return the mining sector to the industrial havoc it experienced in the 1970’s and 80’s.

Rio Tinto Pilbara operations manager Greg Lilleyman said thousands of employees joined the company under the 2008 agreement and the court decision would have no effect on their terms and conditions.

"The last thing we want is to have uncertainty introduced during this period of growth in the Pilbara, both for the company and for Western Australia," Lilleyman said.

Albanese also voiced his concerns over the potential for increased industrial action to slow hamper its Pilbara operations, adding that he would like to see it generate 450 million tonnes of ore annually, double its current rate of 225 million tonnes, Reuters reports.

The Australia Mines and Metals Association (AMMA) have called for a legislation to ban strikes that ‘offend public interest or are designed to pressure employers to cave in to union demands.

The AMMA reportedly called for the law amongst a number of other proposals it has submitted for the Federal review of the industrial relations laws in January next year, according to The West Australian.

AMMA spokesperson Minna Knight said legislation is needed to ban some strikes as existing laws are too lenient.

Following a survey of more than 700 union applications for industrial action, it was found that Fair Work Australia granted the right to carry out strikes in all but six cases.

Australian Industry Group chief executive Heather Ridout said the latest ABS industrial dispute statist should serve as a huge wake up call for the Government.



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