BY ALEX BAINBRIDGE
HOBART — After months of union and community pressure, tin mining company Renison Bell, located on Tasmania's west coast, finally agreed on July 12 to conduct an assessment of the risks associated with its 56-hour weekly work roster.
The assessment is expected to take about a month and is being carried out in conjunction with the state government authority, Workplace Standards.
Renison Bell instituted the 56-hour work week after a May 16 restructure abolished 90 jobs, leaving just 220. Before the restructure, the company operated a 42-hour weekly roster. Although workers voted to accept the redundancies, the Australian Workers Union, which covers the workers, objected to the changed roster.
On May 18, Queenstown GP Dr Gerry McGushin publicly condemned the new roster, labelling 12-hour shifts as "Dickensian".
"I'm yet to find a worker that actually thinks they are better off", he said in response to management claims that workers had accepted the 12-hour shifts.
Workers on 12-hour shifts "catch every 'flu and bug going around because their body's immunity is depressed", he said, and the long hours contributed to marriage breakdown, high stress and reduced ability to participate in sporting and other community activities.
On June 6, two young miners were killed in a rockfall at the mine. Unions Tasmania called for a state government inquiry into the running of the mine, including the hours of work; industrial relations commissioner Pat Leary also called for a review on July 6.
At every step along the way, the Labor state government has resisted calls for a government inquiry. Deputy premier Paul Lennon justified the job losses and new roster on May 16 by saying, "tin prices around the world have fallen by 20% over the past five years" while Labor parliamentarian Ken Bacon said on July 9, "the government is not going to get involved in an industrial dispute".
Lennon's first meeting with the unions on this issue was not until July 20. Even then the government's only response was to seek "assurances" that employment levels would not be further reduced. Before the sackings, the state Labor government gave Renison Bell $4.5 million in subsidies.
Although there are no guarantees that the review will scrap the new shifts, union activists view the company backdown as a victory.
Renison Bell is not an isolated case. Similar rosters apply at the Mt Lyell copper mine and gold mines at Queenstown and Beaconsfield. With unemployment spiralling in the area, many companies have taken the opportunity to force more difficult conditions onto vulnerable workers.
Working conditions and job shedding at the mines are largely responsible for the mass exodus of residents from Tasmania's west coast: its population has fallen 47% in the past 24 years.