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A landmark inquiry into Australia’s mining sector has uncovered dozens of shocking cases of sexual harassment and abuse of female workers at companies including BHP Group and Rio Tinto Group.

The Western Australia government report released on Thursday described “horrific” incidents at the workplaces which it labelled both a failure of the industry and of oversight by the government. Among recommendations were the payment of compensation to the many workers who became victims of bosses and colleagues on remote projects.

“I was shocked and appalled well beyond expectation by the size and depth of the problem,” Libby Mettam, chair of the inquiry, said in the report. “To hear the lived reality of the taunts, attacks and targeted violence, the devastation and despair the victims experienced, the threats to or loss of their livelihood that resulted was shattering and completely inexcusable.” 

The probe delves into the dark corners of an industry that’s under mounting pressure from investors, governments and society to address its impacts on local communities and the wider environment. BHP and Rio Tinto issued their own inquiries after allegations from women emerged in Western Australia’s $159bn a year resources industry, where so-called fly in-fly out (Fifo) workers are transported to remote sites for several weeks at a time.

Among the allegations of abuse revealed in the report were:

  • A woman involved in a safety issue was told by a supervisor she could “make the issue go away” if she had sex with him.
  • Another was knocked unconscious in her room and woke up undressed with her jeans around her ankles.
  • Another described how a man forced his hands down her top several times in front of other workers and “no-one did anything”.
  • After complaining about colleagues making sexual jokes about her, a woman said her supervisor’s response was to “force himself on her”.
  • Sex dolls and toys placed in women’s sleeping quarters;
  • Women were victims of stalking, unsolicited texting and provocative photo requests.
  • “Shovelling”, where iron ore was dumped inside the vehicles of women drivers who didn’t comply with sexual requests.

The inquiry revealed that BHP Group recorded 91 reports of alleged sexual harassment or assault in the year to June 30 2021, of which 79 were substantiated. Rio Tinto, from January 2020 to August 2021, received 51 complaints of sexual harassment or assault in Fifo operations, including one substantiated report of sexual assault and 29 substantiated reports of sexual harassment.

“Rio will closely study the report’s recommendations,” Rio’s iron ore chief, Simon Trott, said in an emailed statement. “The courage of people coming forward to tell their stories has been critical in terms of shining a light on behaviours that must change within our company and our industry.”

Allegations of abuse were also received at projects operated by Woodside Petroleum, Fortescue Metals Group and Chevron.

Chevron will  review the findings, and the inquiry has “provided a critical opportunity to learn, act and improve”, the company said in a statement. 

Zero tolerance

Fortescue CEO Elizabeth Gaines said that while the company has implemented safety enhancements at worksites after conducting its own review, “we acknowledge that some inappropriate behaviour still occurs”. 

“In line with our zero-tolerance approach to harassment, bullying, discrimination and intimidation, we will continue to encourage our team members to call out inappropriate behaviour, to speak up and take clear, decisive action when they do identify behaviour which does not align with our values,” Gaines said in a statement.

BHP and Woodside didn’t immediately respond to requests to comment on the details of the report.

Male-dominated camps

In Western Australia, a resource-rich state at the centre of a huge iron ore industry, remote mines can be accessed only through flights by Fifo workers. These sites have been especially risky for women. and remain largely male-dominated, with workers living in camp-style accommodation.

A report commissioned by Rio Tinto and released in February showed more than a quarter of its female workers have experienced sexual harassment and almost half of all staff have been victims of bullying. Larger rival BHP last year said it fired 48 workers at its sites in Western Australia since 2019 after verifying allegations of harassment.

The Western Australian government should “consider establishing a forum to hear, document and acknowledge the experiences of victims of historical workplace sexual harassment,” the report recommended. “Part of this process could include exploring opportunities for redress, such as formal apologies from companies and/or perpetrators and appropriate compensation.”

Other recommendations in the report, which are expected to be accepted by the state government, include:

  • Ensuring mining and other resources companies enforce serious repercussions, including dismissal, for any person who has attempted to seek sexual favours for advantage and that all proper legal actions will be taken against them.
  • The industry must explore ways to prevent perpetrators of serious sexual harassment from finding re-employment on other sites and in other companies.
  • The mining and resources industry must establish acceptable standards for accommodation facilities, including security and other safety measures.

“We were told how sexual harassment is generally accepted or overlooked, of the abuse of positions of power, serious breaches of codes of conduct, and a culture of cover-up,” Mettam said. “It is simply shocking this could be taking place in the 21st century in one of the state’s most lucrative industries.”

Bloomberg News. More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com


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