“Enough is enough”- Sexual Harassment in the Mining industry

Jennifer Porter
July 7, 2022
Photo: Jp Valery

Worklogic’s newly appointed Western Australian director, Jennifer Porter, discusses the shocking findings and recommendations from the recent examination into WA’s mining industry.

On 23 June 2022 a report was tabled in the WA Parliament after an extensive Inquiry.  The report, “Enough is enough” Sexual Harassment against women in the Fly in Fly Out (“FIFO”) mining industry made 79 Findings and 24 recommendations. Some of the recommendations will be difficult to implement, but the Committee should be commended for the creative solutions proposed.

I have considered 4 of these Recommendations, and the challenging problems they are proposing to address.

The trigger for the Inquiry was a series of horror stories of sexual assaults and sexual harassment in Western Australian FIFO workplaces.  The Mining industry generates $208 billion in export income, making up 94% of the state exports and employs nearly 150,000 individuals, and it attracts a lot of public pride and attention.   These stories prompted community outrage and political attention.

The Committee considered 87 written submissions, testimony from Mining Companies, Unions, and industry bodies.  The most compelling evidence came from the brave women who shared their personal experiences.   

The Committee asked how prevalent sexual harassment across the sector is and concluded that it was endemic.  Women gave evidence of shocking and appalling experiences including serious violent sexual assaults, promises of permanent jobs in exchange for sexual favours, stalking and grooming.  Women spoke about their fears living in mine site accommodations camps including putting a table in front of their door for protection. 

The data on sexual harassment and sexual assaults collected by the safety regulator, the Department for Mines, Industry Regulation and Safety (“DMIRS”) and by companies was inaccurate. The Committee was critical of DMIRS for having accepted that the low level of reporting was accurate, given it had only received 22 reports of sexual assaults on mines over 7 years. The WA Police investigated 23 reports of sexual assaults over the previous 2 years.

The Australian Human Rights Commission data included in its Respect@Work report 2020, found that 74% of women in mining reported being sexual harassed in the last 5 years.

Having found the existence of such frequency of unlawful and criminal behaviour, often ignored by employers, the Committee recommended the Government establish a forum to hear the experiences of victims of historic workplace sexual harassment and explore opportunities for redress such as apologies and compensation (Recommendation 1). 

We have seen this type of restorative engagement program successfully implemented in other jurisdictions such as within the Australian Defence Force which established this process in 2012.  This recommendation aligns with the move towards a Victim Centric approach in this area.

The Committee considered whether the workplace characteristics and practices provide adequate protection against sexual harassment.  It concluded thatFIFO embodied all the main risks to sexual harassment including:

  • Poor culture and misuse of alcohol;
  • Gender inequality, where women remain a minority.  Women account for less than 20% and are poorly represented in leadership roles; and
  • Power imbalance; the hierarchical structure in the mining industry has enabled poor behaviours to continue.  Women had low expectations that bad behaviour would lead to consequences, and it was more likely that the offender was moved to another site.

To prevent the practice of perpetrators of serious sexual harassment moving to another site, it recommended that the industry explore an industry wide register or accreditation similar to the Working with Children Card. (Recommendation 3)

This is a novel and innovative solution, however it creates significant challenges to successfully implement a scheme that will be considered to be fair.  Balancing the rights of the perpetrator to natural justice and the protection of victims will be challenging.

The high rates of labour hire and subcontracting on sites was also found to contribute to the lack of responsibility and accountability of the labour hire/subcontractors and further increase career uncertainty and hence lack of job security.  These conditions created an increased risk of sexual harassment. 

It recommended that the sector work to reduce these risks by considering the appropriate proportion of labour hire and contracted workforce. (Recommendation 6)

This will be challenging given the way the industry is currently structured and the number of existing contractual arrangements companies have in place. It will need to be a long-term initiative.  It may also create hardship for many small contactors who rely on the mining industry for their livelihood.    

The Committee consider the steps industry had taken in response and found that companies were now taking the matter seriously, with major commitments to improve physical security of workplace and accommodation sites (such as improvements to lighting, security, locks, and CCTV).  Companies’ failure, however, to recognise what was happening amounted to a serious corporate failure.

Companies, the Regulator and Government Agencies had failed to understand the reality of the situation.  Companies relied on internal reporting systems, however, their employees don’t trust them and therefore under report.  Employees don’t believe that their issues will be taken seriously. The Committee identified issues with anonymous reporting (due to lack of trust) and it was recommended that internal and external options were required.

It recommended that DMIRS work with industry to explore options for an industry -funded widespread roll out for consistent, all hours, third party anonymous reporting platforms.  (Recommendation 14).

This type of industry body “whistle-blower” scheme will not only provide a mechanism to address issues but will also provide useful data and information to allow for more targeted strategies to address “hotspots” and trends.

We have only considered 4 of the 24 Recommendations, but all are worthy.   The Chair of the Committee Ms Mettam has asked for “swift and urgent action.” Enough is enough and the time for action is now.

Actions for employers now

There are some recommendations employers should be acting upon now including:

  1. Ensuring that there are serious repercussions, including dismissal, for any person who has attempted to seek sexual favours for advantage (recommendation 2). This should only follow a robust investigation;
  2. Reviewing your gender balance, particularly in leadership roles. (recommendation 5);
  3. Review your workplace culture identify factors which allow sexual harassment to persist (Recommendation 7); and
  4. Providing all your workforce with sexual harassment and assault training delivered by suitable practitioners.  Additional specialist training should be provided for people who must formally respond to incidents (recommendation 9)

We can help employers with Workplace Reviews, Investigations and Workplace Training.  Our team have expertise in helping employees approach these challenges with a Trauma Informed, Victim Centric approach.

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