By Anthony Benbow
PERTH — Since mid-November, BHP Iron Ore workers at the company's operations at Mt Newman and Port Hedland in WA's north-west have had to deal with unprecedented individual contracts.
For decades, workers at the mine and associated operations have been covered by collective, union agreements. Now BHP management is gearing up for a battle to break these agreements.
The attempt to enforce contracts is the latest round of BHP's cost-cutting, as new chief executive Paul Anderson tries to shift the burden of dodgy investment decisions onto the work force. If BHP succeeds in WA, it's only a matter of time before the same thing occurs at every BHP work site in the country.
Three months ago the four main unions covering BHP workers approached management to begin negotiating the next enterprise agreement (EBA), because the current one was nearing expiry. Management refused to discuss seriously or negotiate a new agreement. Then, in November, individual contracts were "made available". So far, according to management, around 15% of the work force has signed up.
Workers who sign will have any outstanding entitlements from the old system paid in cash. This includes accumulated sick leave, and a few long-serving workers who have had good health stand to pick up tens of thousands of dollars. The company is also promising a far more generous superannuation scheme (14% as opposed to 8% in the old EBA), and some minor improvements to overtime payments.
However, according to Communications, Electrical and Plumbing Union organiser Gary McCulloch, "Most work conditions remain the same as in the previous EBA. Also, these new individual agreements do not detail working conditions. They contain a clause which says, 'this document to be read in conjunction with BHP company policy'. So if the company changes its policy then your work conditions change overnight."
According to some reports, BHP management has admitted that it expects to gain around $80 million from the change. McCulloch says, "We cannot see where that $80 million will come from other than out of the pockets of the BHP Pilbara work force".
The company claims its labour costs are the highest in the Pilbara and a barrier to "competitiveness". A decline in work conditions in WA's north-west began over 10 years ago, and BHP now wants to go down the same trail blazed by Robe River Iron and Hamersley Iron.
BHP and Hamersley Iron have reportedly held discussions about a possible merger of Pilbara operations.
Mass meetings are due to be held in the Pilbara on December 7 and 8 to discuss further action. The ACTU has also been stonewalled in its attempts to negotiate with BHP management, and has stated that it will "use all its reserves to ensure a collective agreement is struck at BHP Iron Ore operations".