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Pilbara braces for IR change

AFTER about 10 years of industrial relations peace, the Pilbara region looks set to explode again.

WA’s workplace agreements legislation has been credited with reducing industrial strife in the region, but that legislation is due to be superseded.

However, debate on the WA Government’s Industrial Relations Reform Bill began anew on Tuesday. If passed, that Bill will return the State to its old Awards-based IR system.

Rio Tinto, which runs several mining operations in the North West, including Hamersley Iron, Robe River Iron Ore and the Argyle Diamond Mine, has indicated it will seek relief in the Federal IR system.

It has had its workers on individual contracts for several years and industry sources believe that has been responsible for the IR peace the company has enjoyed.

A spokesman for Rio Tinto said the Federal system “best replicates what we’re going to lose”.

BHP-Billiton, another major Pilbara player, is considering its options and has not ruled out entering the Federal system.

It put about 55 per cent of its workforce onto individual contracts two years ago and had what it claimed to be a win last year before the WA Industrial Relations Commission regarding the remaining 45 per cent.

Those 470 workers won a 20 per cent pay increase and a 6 per cent boost to super contributions while BHPB had some increased flexibility put into the Award they worked under.

BHPB spokesman John Crowley said the company did not want to see a return to the old industrial strife.

“We’ve had two record years. Those on individual contracts don’t want to jump off the wages they’re on,” Mr Crowley said.

“Their wages are 136 per cent above the Award and we’re giving workers a chance to have input into their workplace.”

Mr Crowley said the bulk of BHPB’s Pilbara workforce had 12 months before the changes affected them.

“But that doesn’t mean we’ll be waiting until the middle of next year to make any changes,” he said.

A spokesman for Woodside, another major Pilbara employer, said the industrial disputation in the region had largely been a problem facing hard-rock miners.

“Most of our workers are on staff so we haven’t had that many problems,” he said.

WA’s iron ore producing region has had a chequered industrial relations past, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s.

WAIRC commissioners used to have to fly to the region on a weekly basis to handle industrial problems.

Stories abound of workers going on strike if the canteen served the same flavour of icecream two days in a row or if there was one carton of milk in the smoko supplies instead of two.

Admittedly, some of the mining companies brought the problems on themselves.

One anecdote dates back to the days of Cliffs Robe River Iron Ore.

A worker was dismissed for the theft of a radio. He admitted the theft but claimed that it was not a crime because the workplace saying was “why buy if Cliffs supply”.

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