Australia’s mining giants bet on education to tackle FIFO sexual abuse
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Shani Alexander
Shani Alexander, Senior reporter

As Australia’s mining industry reels from the sheer scale of discrimination, harassment, and sexual assault within its workforce, resources giants BHP, Rio Tinto, and Fortescue Metals Group have announced a partnership to fund industry-first learning programmes designed to educate future employees on why inappropriate behaviours must be eradicated from the sector.

Following a spate of sexual assault reports, a parliamentary inquiry into the harassment of women in the fly-in, fly-out (FIFO) camps in western Australia is currently underway. A male-dominated workplace and largely unrestricted access to alcohol are said to have fostered unsafe environments for women working in remote and isolated camps across the country.

In recent weeks, women who have worked in the FIFO camps – where rosters range from two weeks on, one week off, to one month on, one month off – have given damning evidence to the inquiry about their treatment at the hands of male colleagues and mine bosses, including at three of the world's largest mining concerns. Allegations have ranged from bullying, to groping, and rape.

Astacia Stevens, a Rio Tinto worker and mother of two, told the inquiry how a male colleague would touch her “inappropriately at almost every occasion that I was in his presence”.

“He would often grab my hips from behind and pretend to sexually penetrate,” she alleged. “He would make crude and sexual comments in front of other guys when I would need to pick something up off the floor.”

The alleged perpetrator also demanded “special favours” of Stevens and, after she refused to have sex with him, did not endorse her application to a haul truck operator position.

Rio Tinto said that since 1 January 2020 it has had one substantiated report of sexual assault and 29 substantiated instances of sexual harassment at its FIFO camps. The firm also confirmed one allegation of sexual assault and 14 reports of sexual harassment are currently under investigation. Eight reports of sexual harassment could not be substantiated, the company said.

Also giving evidence to the inquiry, BHP said an increased reporting rate of allegations of sexual harassment in its workforce follows its attempts to increase awareness, promote, and centralise workplace reporting and investigations, along with broader societal developments and intolerance of such behaviour.

In its submission to the inquiry, BHP said it has terminated 48 workers since 2019 following reports of “non-consensual sexual penetration” and “allegations of non-consensual kissing or touching of breasts”.

As for Fortescue Metals, a total of 31 reports of sexual harassment have been raised at the firm since 2020. Providing testimony to the inquiry last week, the iron ore giant’s CEO, Elizabeth Gaines, said the company was introducing a new drinking limit in which employers may have “no more than four mid-strength alcoholic drinks in a 24-hour period”. BHP and Rio Tinto have already implemented similar policies.

The most effective way to train in relation to these matters is to talk about real-life examples of the consequences of these behaviours on individuals

Faced with disturbing and distressing evidence from survivors of workplace abuse, BHP, Rio Tinto, and Fortescue have pledged to fund and help design new social awareness education packages in schools throughout Western Australia.

A pilot programme for technical and further education (TAFE) students, set to be developed in 2022, will form part of core learning requirements for students planning to join Rio Tinto, BHP or Fortescue. The partnership will also explore the potential to work with universities and high schools to encompass broader education pathways across the state, as well as for delivery in workplaces. In time, these packages will be made available for application across broader industries and the country.

“Education and training are critical to ensuring common understanding of the behaviours that are appropriate and acceptable at BHP,” said Brandon Craig, BHP WA Iron Ore asset president. “This industry collaboration will complement our existing internal training programmes, leadership training, communication campaigns, and upgrades to camp security, and support services available to anyone who experiences disrespectful behaviour.

While the new education programmes will be welcomed, recognition of the scale of the problem, and willingness to tackle it, from the entire mining industry will be needed for female employees to feel safe at work, says Joydeep Hor, founder and managing principal of People + Culture Strategies in Sydney.

“Employers in all industry sectors do need to become more sophisticated in their training and education around these subjects and move the focus away from things that are too basic and obvious to be impactful,” he says. “The most effective way to train in relation to these matters is to talk about real-life examples of the consequences of these behaviours on individuals from a mental health and other perspectives.”

The new education programme is one of several initiatives introduced by mining companies to address sexual harassment, bullying, and racism in the sector. However, to ensure employees feel safe, their employers will need to go well beyond the mere introduction of new policies and procedures.

“It will require ensuring there is a genuine respect and commitment to diversity from all in the workforce,” says Hor. “This will require a complete zero-tolerance approach of any behaviours that go close to inappropriate and there will need to be examples made of people who engage in low-level breach behaviours as a demonstration to everyone that these behaviours will not be tolerated.

“The mining sector, generally, has some of the strictest safety regimes in place because of the nature of the work, which some might describe as inherently unsafe. Extending this same mindset to matters such as harassment, bullying, and racism is a big paradigm shift. The good news, however, is that if they can bridge this gap they should be able to do some very constructive things.”