I asked my neighbour, a drive-in, drive-out (DIDO) coal mine worker, about her job amid the COVID-19 shutdown. “They won’t get rid of us: they need workers to make their profits grow,” she replied.
My neighbour put her finger on the federal government’s COVID-19 approach. While jobs in hospitality, tourism and entertainment are not deemed “essential”, keeping the mining and resource sector making super profits is.
In addition, the fossil fuel industry, particularly the oil and gas sector, has been demanding federal financial relief and the dismantling of environmental protection measures.
Renew Economy reported on April 6 how, globally, fossil fuel corporations are using the coronavirus crisis to advance their narrow interests. The British-based think tank InfluenceMap provided many examples.
In Australia, the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association (APPEA), the self-described “voice of the oil and gas industry” is pushing the federal government for “relief” in the form of “deferring costs and work program commitments linked to exploration licences as the industry confronts the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic”.
The Liberal government of South Australia has come to the party with an immediate deferral of annual petroleum fees due in the next six months.
APPEA is also pushing for new regulations to govern the resource sector and has welcomed the Victorian Labor government’s decision to lift the ban on onshore gas exploration.
The April 3 Australian Financial Review reported that Australia’s coal exports over the past 3 months were higher than the same period last year. The industry, which is highly mechanised in Australia, is seeking to get ahead of its overseas competitors by capitalising on the COVID-19 pandemic. The price of metallurgical and thermal coal is up, while costs of production are down.
The mining and resources conglomerates are also using the pandemic to reduce working conditions. They are planning for the post-pandemic recovery.
The April 3 Australian carried a leaked call by the mining lobby to drastically slash working conditions, declaring that a “tsunami of significant commercial impacts” was about to hit the sector.
Australian Mines and Metals Association chief executive Steve Knott told federal Attorney-General Christian Porter that new awards and enterprise agreements should be suspended. He said awards and enterprise agreements are hampering business and that they should have the right to bypass the legal framework and reduce pay and conditions for a minimum of six months.
ACTU secretary Sally McManus said that any scrapping of workplace agreements would “normally be unacceptable, but making such an opportunistic grab on working people’s rights during this crisis ... is disgraceful”.
In Queensland and Western Australia, where border restrictions have been imposed, exemptions have been made for some fly-in fly-out (FIFO) mine workers.
Communities are concerned that interstate FIFO workers (and intra-state FIFO and DIDO workers) could spread the virus.
Along with the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), communities want locals to replace FIFO workers. CFMEU Mining and Energy Queensland district president Stephen Smyth said mining companies should urgently offer affected workers appropriate housing near their worksites.
“The safety of workers and communities must be the top priority,” he said. “We accept that limiting FIFO is a measure to protect safety in the current circumstances.”
Moranbah GP Margaret Swenson told ABC News she had seen miner patients who are anxious that their workplace is not following physical distancing recommendations. Moranbah Hospital has just two ventilators, and Swenson said she is concerned local patients would be left behind if intensive care units in larger centres became overwhelmed. She said if companies insist on continuing at the same level of production, it could become dangerous.
More than 10,000 workers in the Isaac region’s 26 active coal mines are transient, arriving by bus, plane or car. The local council wants workers to stop commuting, worried that the local healthcare system is not set up to cope with a COVID-19 outbreak.
In Western Australia, mining companies have given FIFO workers the option to relocate to the state with their families. CFMEU WA Mining and Energy secretary Greg Busson said mining companies are right to explore options, but workers should not be left out of pocket.
Busson said mining continues “to support jobs and the economy” and that “moving to a local workforce model is a good way to reduce the risks to workers and mining communities”. However, he said “companies must cover the costs of workers’ relocation and compensate them for the upheaval to their lives and families. Workers shouldn’t be paying the price for the mining industry to continue operating.”
The response of the mining unions stands in stark contrast to education unions — a truly essential industry — who have consistently called for schools to be closed.
Meanwhile, individual mine workers like my neighbour continue to express their concerns, privately, about management’s failure to provide safe workplaces by fully implementing protocols developed jointly with unions.