Miners fight BHP to reverse WorkChoices-era pay cuts

Over 3500 mine workers in central Queensland’s Bowen Basin staged their second week-long strike in mid-April, defending working conditions against the multi-billion dollar mining giant BHP Billiton.

The unions are fighting to claw back conditions ripped away under WorkChoices, when the company slashed the wages of contractors, with some losing half their pay.

Workers are insisting that labour hire workers and contractors get the same pay as permanent workers, in an effort to resist the spread of casualisation.

BHP announced an enormous half-yearly profit of $9 billion in February. The Bowen Basin mines alone, which produce high value coking coal, make $9 million a day in profit. The mines produce almost 20 per cent of the world’s coking coal shipped by sea.

Yet the company is refusing to budge, dragging out negotiations for 18 months already. The mines are owned by a joint venture, the BHP Billiton Mitsubishi Alliance (BMA), but workers are employed directly by BHP Billiton.

It has declared war on its workforce, claiming the union demands infringe on its “right to manage”. In a leaked email BHP coal’s chief executive Marcus Randolph declared the company would never agree to the union claims, “not now, not next month, and not next year”. Yet the company was able to live with the same arrangements before WorkChoices was introduced.

Its latest move has been to announce the closure of one of its mines in the area, which it says is losing money. But the union described the claims as “garbage” pointing out it made money when coal prices were less than a third of current prices.

The mine employs 340 full-time workers and over 1000 contractors. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they want to look at operating the mine with a different type of workforce that does not involve being permanent BMA, BHP employees and our members”, CMFEU district president Stephen Smyth said.

The anger at BHP runs deep. “I have never seen a workforce so determined”, said CFMEU mining division national secretary Tony Maher, “the ballot to take a seven-day strike was not taken lightly and it was 2500 votes to two”.

The company is also trying to take away safety breaks during 12-hour night shifts and replace union safety officers with management appointees.

In March it went back on an principle agreement about rostering, reached after months of negotiations, following the company’s initial suggestion it might scrap Christmas Day and Boxing Day as the only days of the year all workers are guaranteed a day off.

Now BHP is moving to put its proposed agreement to a postal ballot of its workforce, despite union opposition.

If the mine workers can win, they will set a much needed example about how to win back the working conditions stripped away under John Howard that Labor has refused to restore. Their struggle is a fight for all of us.

James Supple



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