An inquiry into Western Australia’s fly-in-fly-out (FIFO) mining sector has unveiled a “staggering” range of sexual abuse and harassment against female workers.
The WA government released a report on Thursday that said sexual assault has been “generally accepted or overlooked” in the FIFO mining sector, with women’s rights undermined by “the abuse of positions of power” and “the culture of cover-up.”
The inquiry was told that women accounted for 74 percent of FIFO mining workers who reported sexual harassment at work.
Among the “horror stories” revealed in the report was one incident involving a woman facing review due to a near-miss incident while driving a haul truck. She was told by a male supervisor that he could make a safety investigation “go away” if she obeyed his sexual request.
One woman said she was knocked unconscious in her room and awoke to find her jeans and underpants around her ankles. “I felt sick, ashamed, violated, dirty, and very confused,” she was quoted saying.
Another said: “The hypocrisy and differing standards between men and women who don’t act like men in the mining industry is stark. I have escalated women’s laundry being stolen from camp laundry rooms to be met with comments of, ‘What do you want us to do about it?’ and, ‘That happens. Just get used to it,’ but then have the same manager send out a general alert saying that it’s unacceptable to steal people’s tools.”
The report revealed women working in the mining industry experienced “unwanted touching, sexual comments, provocative photo requests, and grooming.”
There was also evidence of “powerplay behaviour” called “shovelling,” where iron ore would be dumped on the cab of women’s trucks if sexual requests were not met.
“I was shocked and appalled well beyond expectation by the size and depth of the problem,” the inquiry’s chair, Libby Mettam, told the state Parliament.
“To hear the lived reality of the taunts, attacks, and targeted violence, the devastation and despair the victims experienced, the threats or loss of their livelihood that resulted, was shattering. And it’s completely inexcusable and simply shocking that this could be taking place in the 21st century in one of the state’s most lucrative industry sectors.”
Workers noted that the highly regimented structure of FIFO workplace environment, which strips them of control over their work and personal time, is “a significant source of distress” and contributes to a high rate of bullying in the industry.
“In self-preservation, people create subcultures based on ultra-masculinity and dominance, and engage in maladaptive behavior like bullying, as a means to exert control over their situation,” the report said.
Other factors include short-term contracts and heavy alcohol use.
According to the inquiry, women are afraid of speaking up due to fear of recrimination, risk of losing one’s position and shifts, the lack of avenues for reporting, and distrust in the system.
In response to the inquiry, mining companies and industry representatives acknowledged that the FIFO industry has a serious problem, with Rio Tinto Chief Executive Simon Trott saying he was “appalled and sickened” by the stories of sexual harassment.
Rio Tinto, the leading global mining group, in March established the Everyday Respect Taskforce to respond to sexual harassment and bullying and to “ensure the silent voices remain loudest.”
Meanwhile, Minister for Resources and Northern Australia Madeleine King said in a media release on June 23 that “any case of sexual harassment is one too many.”
“Sadly, the inquiry has found that sexual harassment and assaults are much too common for women who choose to work in the FIFO workforce.”
The inquiry made 24 recommendations, one of which were suggestion that mining companies should enforce serious repercussions, including dismissal, for any person who has attempted to seek sexual favours for advantage.
Other recommendations including establishing a forum to hear and acknowledge the experience of the victims, and implementing moderate drinking standards in mining companies.