Final report on FIFO mining industry sexual harassment: a company checklist

The WA Parliament Community Development and Justice Standing Committee (Committee) released its findings report (Report) which can be found HERE.

It is unfortunate that the chairman’s covering letter to the report is that ‘It is important that the Parliament, Government and the broader public become aware of the magnitude of the horrendous violence and abuse women are exposed to while going about their work.’  We are saying unfortunate not because the nature of incidents were not unsafe in a high safety risk industry, but because the one thing not uncovered by the inquiry is the true magnitude of the problem.

It was also shameful, damaging, a lousy way to run any business, and brutish.

The only data on magnitude to speak of is the Western Mining Worker’s Alliance survey of workers found that nearly 25% of female survey respondents had experienced physical acts of sexual assault and 66% had experienced verbal sexual harassment in the FIFO industry.  The Australian Human Rights Commission Respect@work; National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces in 2020 (see HERE) identified the rate of sexual harassment directed at women in the mining industry as being around 74%.  Men reported harassment at around the national average of 32 per cent. The response rate to these surveys was low, so it is difficult to ascertain just how prevalent these threats to safety are. But it is clear that incidences of bulling, harassment or even sexual assault do not qualify for the TRIFR statistics that make it on boards’ radars and in individual company disclosures.

The report lists many failings and makes grim reading, the key factors being poor culture, gender inequality and power disparity in the workplace, with failures in both the corporate and government spheres.

This is from an industry which in WA generated $208 billion in export income (94% of WA merchandise exports with iron ore contributing $155 billion) and $11 billion in state royalties.  The industry also creates another 280,000 related jobs or more than 25% of all jobs in the state.

As with all government enquiries, the terms of reference (TOR) guide the outcome .  The Committee was established as essentially a fact finding exercise to consider:

  • Whether there is a clear understanding of the issues in FIFO workplaces;
  • Do existing workplaces adequately protect against sexual harassment;
  • Are the WA regulatory frameworks, policies and practices adequate for FIFO workplaces in WA; and
  • What actions are being taken by industry and government to improve the situation and are there any examples of good practice.

The findings were:

  • No;
  • No;
  • No; and
  • Not enough

The reality is that the Committee cannot compel companies to act so the focus is directed to government to strengthen legislation in line with other states (definition of sexual harassment, data management systems, information sharing) while industry is to be ‘influenced’ to lift its game.  Examples abound. For instance, despite the labour shortage, properly check references and do not hire serial offenders.

Our recent newsletter on the topic provides links to the submissions of major industry players – see HERE

If you are an investor or a director with an eye to ESG as a measure of corporate health and impact on the community this is a troubling report.  There is also the added complexity of an industry reliant on labour hire and contracting firms.

We have seen that worker safety and specifically deaths became a focus when penalties for directors came into force.  Management’s attention was captured by and reflected in incentives with Lost Time Injury Frequency Rates (LTIFR) a common measure of workplace safety in dashboard reporting and STI KPI indicators.  However sexual harassment will not show up under the W.A. Work Health and Safety (WHS) Act which still views cases of sexual harassment through the prism of physical workplace safety where a 10-day lost time injury is required before reporting becomes compulsory.

In an industry suffering: chronic labour shortages yet has a female participation rate of under 20%; that supposedly values employee safety but fails to even adequately record the extent that employees have felt their safety (including mental well-being) threatened; with few exceptions not pay related to improving performance on it; and has a significant proportion of investors likely to view this as an ESG risk, there is much to be done.

Here is a simple checklist:

  1. Review and communicate a code of conduct that outlaws unacceptable behaviour;
  2. Set up and monitor safe whistleblowing systems;
  3. Measure reports of bullying, assaults and harassment. Respond to these to verify and apply remedial action;
  4. Measure that component of the employee engagement survey that employees feel safe in their job from these specific threats;
  5. Set targets for improvement, alongside TRIFR;
  6. Establish a remuneration consequence management framework to ensure a safe environment;
  7. Be prepared to disclose your performance when you engage with investors, and what you are doing to improve it.
© Guerdon Associates 2024
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