The ABC's 7.30 Report on June 11 reported that 200 miners at BHP Billiton's iron ore mine at Mount Newman in Western Australia had signed a petition complaining about "an atmosphere of intimidation and victimisation" of workers on individual agreements (AWAs). The workers' petition complained that management was forcing them to work in unsafe conditions and warned that a serious accident was likely.
"You don't have a choice. You either sign the agreement or you don't get a job, simple as that", Allen Zadow, a miner at the Mount Whaleback mine told the 7.30 Report. All the workers interviewed felt that the management culture had made workers "afraid" to hold up production. They recounted incidents where the pressure to produce had almost led to accidents and cited cases of management intimidation of workers trying to report safety breaches.
"It simply confirms what we've already known", Tony Maher, national president of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) told Green Left Weekly. "AWAs allow them to rule by intimidation and fear. That petition is a cry for help and was, in fact, instigated by the maintenance supervisor.
"What [the workers] are trying to do is to collectivise individual problems because they know that on their own they can't get straightforward issues, like the reporting of safety issues, dealt with by management without being made to feel that their job is in jeopardy for raising concerns."
Maher said the CFMEU had met with a large group of workers at a Rio Tinto site at Karratha and showed them the story from the 7.30 Report. "They all said that's exactly what goes on at the Rio Tinto operations."
"The only way to stop [the intimidation] is to get rid of AWAs", Maher continued. "We've got a work force who are cut off from each other. For those employees who have an individual relationship with a national employer like BHP, there's no union to back you and fellow workers won't do anything to jeopardise their jobs. The only way is to collectivise. The petition is a step along the way to those workers realising that they have to join a union."
Asked what he thought about the Labor Party's decision to allow AWAs in the mining industry to run until 2013, Maher said he thought Labor was up against the law that states that the contract cannot be broken unless "at least one of the parties wants to". While Maher didn't think Labor had finalised its policy, he said that it should allow people to get out of an AWA if they want to. But, he added, if someone wants to continue on an AWA then so be it. "Let's give the employees some choice", he concluded.