24/05/2005 - 22:00

Industrial Relations still a big concern

24/05/2005 - 22:00


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Just in case anyone missed me, I have had the great pleasure of visiting the State’s vast North West with the Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s annual tour.

Just in case anyone missed me, I have had the great pleasure of visiting the State’s vast North West with the Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s annual tour.

I have ventured north numerous times in a private capacity but I was privileged to get great access to key NW sites during such a period of growth.

The investment in the region is well-known but up close the scale of development is staggering, not to mention some of the behind-the-scenes operational issues which our resources companies have to deal with.

While much of what we deal with in Perth is relatively small business, there is no doubt that miners, in particular, are running world-scale operations that require immense resources, management and planning.

Thankfully, as they ramp up to export levels never previously anticipated, they have decades of experience to make sure things go relatively smoothly.

However, there are clear issues that stand in the way of such progress. Firstly, the skills shortage is well and truly making life difficult for them.

There is a severe lack of people with the expertise necessary to both build and then run these massive operations.

Ironically, one of the strangest observations of the tour is how few people major mine sites and production facilities actually need to run them. Here they are, efficient and lean, which is probably the worst position to be in when it comes to needing people.

I was fascinated by some of the ways management on the ground, driven by immediate demand from China, had come up with significant efficiency gains in operations that had been going for decades.

I also noted there is another side to the skills shortage. The need to attract a new breed of workers who have a great deal of choice about where they work has heightened efforts to improve safety, local amenities and indigenous involvement. In effect, there is a real social dividend resulting from this boom.

Fortunately, the labour shortage has not resulted in massive industrial issues that plagued mine sites in the past.

However, it was clear from conversations I had that IR was still a big concern when it comes to construction of projects.

One major mine cited 63 days lost to strikes during construction. Consider the cost of that when you add in the additional expense of remote operations? At a time when decisions about investment in this State are touch and go, these employees’ old-fashioned thinking is mindless.

At one project a manager was concerned about workers finding out that policemen providing security to a diplomat on the tour would be on site. What on earth has that got to do with getting on with the job?

Construction workers are in demand, so what are they doing by pricing themselves out of the market? With an endless line of projects listed for development, I have to wonder what is to be gained by holding things up? A day off in the middle of nowhere? There must be some keen naturalists among them.

Imagine if an exporter, upon discovering their products were in demand, contrived to delay shipment? Would the clients’ demand increase? No, they would instead seek alternatives, even if they had to underwrite the development themselves, as has happened in so many markets over the years.

Can’t construction workers see that they are costing themselves future income? Or is it that the few who drum up the trouble know their futures are secure?

Construction workers ought to consider others in the State when they act in this mindless manner. While construction workforces are comparatively big, operational staffing is small. Every time they hold up a project or encourage one to relocate elsewhere, they cost jobs and investment opportunities for their fellow Western Australians – ones that will endure long after one day off work has faded from the memory.


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