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Mining’s IR balancing act

WA Labour Relations Minister John Kobelke says the Industrial Relations Reform Bill 2002 Bill aims to promote a “more harmonious workplace with less stress, less intimidation, less exploitation and to put in place world’s best industrial practices to guarantee greater productivity”.

Businesses have been quick to reject the minister’s assertions, however, saying that employers and employees stood to lose, while union representatives took a more positive view.

Australian Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers’ Union assistant secretary David Kelly said the changes would end the exploitation of workers.

The only winners, according to organisations such as the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of WA and the Master Builders Association, would be the unions and the Labor Party, which they claim will get a monetary windfall from increased union membership.

But while the Labor Party may have put businesses offside with this Bill, what has been the reaction of Labor’s traditional blue-collar supporters?

Research by Business News indicates that, far from being unhappy with the choice of having either individual agreements or collective union award arrangements, employees have also appreciated the Liberal Party’s reforms, voting with their feet.

A case in point is the mining industry, traditionally a heavily unionised sector.

Today, the mining industry has the highest take-up of individual workplace agreements and the union has lost its stranglehold on the industry.

Previously unpublished Australian Bureau of Statistics data obtained by Business News indicates that union membership in the WA mining industry is 14.2 per cent of the workforce in 2000, whereas the average WA union membership across all sectors stood just shy of 20 per cent.

In 1999-00, 9 per cent of all State workplace agreements entered into were in the Metal Ore Mining and Services to Mining categories.

A survey of all the mining sites across the Pilbara, completed before the most recent State election, indicated re-sounding support for the workplace agreements. The survey found more than 90 per cent of workers spoken to in mining companies believed that workplace agreements had been good for them.

An employee relations profile undertaken by the Chamber of Minerals and Energy before the State election indicates that industrial disputes – an

indicator of workplace harmony and productivity – had dropped significantly following the 1993 industrial relations reforms.

Working days lost per 1000 WA employees in the mining sector (excluding the coal industry) was approaching 4000 in 1991 and more than 2000 in 1992, but dropped by around 75 per cent in 1993 and continued to fall throughout the remainder of the 1990s.

Workers also have been rewarded with wage increases that surpass that of other industries.

ABS figures show that, five years ago, miners were earning an average of $1000 a week. By February 2000 they were earning around $1,400 a week, while other industries only had marginal increases, with the average weekly total earning still hovering around $600 a week.

Chamber of Minerals and Energy of WA chief executive Tim Shanahan said productivity within the mining sector was already the highest in the world and the Labor Party had to ensure that any changes to IR made would not threaten this.

He said he didn’t expect a groundswell of support for the industrial relations changes from employees.

“Productivity in the mining industry is very high and at the moment and we would be very concerned if that was now put under pressure,” Mr Shanahan said.

Member for the state seat of Eyre, John Bowler, said not everyone had “won” as a result of the flexible working arrangements. He said the increase in the use of ‘fly-in-fly-out practices was killing regional towns.

“One of the reasons it was allowed to develop was a total shift away from a structured workplace and an eight-hour day five days a week, to work regimes that have really proven to be unsustainable in the long term,” Mr Bowler said.

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