THE HERALD'S OPINION: Casual coal mine work under a legal microscope

CONTROVERSY: Mount Arthur coal mine near Muswellbrook. Picture: BHP
CONTROVERSY: Mount Arthur coal mine near Muswellbrook. Picture: BHP

THE class action against BHP’s Mount Arthur coal mine and two of its labour hire contractors is one of the most interesting bits of news out of the coal industry for some time.

As we are reporting, it sprang from a campaign waged by a former Mount Arthur contractor, Simon Turner, who has fought his former employer, Chandler Macleod, their insurers, and industry regulators, since he was badly injured in a truck accident at work in late 2015.

One of Mr Turner’s main beefs has been a lack of accident pay that mine workers are supposed to receive through their industry-specific compensation scheme. This makes a huge difference, financially.

But along the way, he has also discovered what he argues are major inconsistencies – if not contradictions – in the way the industry is governed. This includes the use of casual labour, which is now widespread across the industry, and codified as permissible under any number of mining enterprise agreements. Mr Turner argues, however, that the Black Coal Mining Award 2010 provides only for full-time and part-time employment, meaning that enterprise agreements that allow casual employment must be in conflict with the award.

Mr Turner is adamant that nobody has been able to tell him where his arguments are wrong. Now, with Canberra’s Chamberlains Law Firm and its litigation funder on his side, this argument and others look likely to be closely examined in the Federal Court.

As far as Chamberlains partner Rory Markham is concerned, BHP and its labour providers are in “significant contravention of the Fair Work Act”. Of course time will tell – we are yet to hear in detail from the companies in this matter – but Chamberlains says it has 400 people ready to sign up to this action, and that it is exploring the situation at other Hunter mines.

Having casual and full-time employees working side-by-side doing the same work – but under very different pay and conditions – has long been a source of angst in the industry, from a union perspective. Employers, obviously, are attracted to the lower costs and flexibility that can come with a casual workforce, and it is difficult to believe that BHP and other companies would not make themselves sure of their legal footing before embarking on such a strategy.

Thanks to Chamberlains, the coal industry looks likely to face some unexpected scrutiny.

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