A NEW batch of statistics from the industry-owned body Coal Services puts the reality of the mining downturn into stark relief.
In June this year, the number of full-time equivalent production jobs in the NSW industry stood at 19,388, a fall of 22 per cent on the June 2012 peak of 24,972.
What these figures mean, in round terms, is that more than one in five mineworking jobs have been lost in NSW in just four years. That is a substantial fall by any account, and it’s a sign of the industrial times that all of these jobs have been lost without the sort of mass district-wide, state-wide or national coal industry stoppages that characterised earlier downturns.
In 1992, bus-loads of coalminers left the Hunter for Canberra to take part in a demonstration outside Parliament House under the title of “Survival ‘92”. This downturn, and the pricing cuts that triggered it, are of a similar scale to the earlier collapse in coal prices, which triggered the closure of a number of mines and put thousands of miners out of work.
So why the different reaction this time around? The answer, fairly obviously, lies in a quarter-century of industrial relations “reforms” that have substantially reduced the ability of unions to organise, and for working people to take strike action as a means of addressing their grievances.
Many will welcome the end of the old ways. And public sympathy is sometimes in short supply when highly paid coalminers complain about their lot in life. But as recent Newcastle Herald reports have highlighted, contract mineworkers in the Hunter are generally paid substantially less than their directly employed colleagues, sometimes while working side by side on the same shift.
Those who complain are often told that any job is better than no job, and to hang up their hard-hat and flouros if they don’t want to stay. Then there’s the pressure from a wider community that increasingly questions the wisdom of mining, in the belief that renewable technologies will provide all of our energy needs without the damaging side-effects of burning fossil fuels.
An example of this is a new report by the Australia Institute that calls for a moratorium on new mines, arguing that the national economy is “ready to move away from coal”.
No matter how such a theoretical winding-down of the industry is proposed, the impact of such a policy will always be felt hardest here in the Hunter.