Addressing the challenges of workforce mobility in mining: insights from Dr Sharon Harwood

Sharon Harwood

With more than 30 years’ experience in social impact measurement, Senior Associate and Social Consultant Dr Sharon Harwood’s career spans forestry (recreation and social forestry), urban and regional planning, with an emphasis on development in rural and remote areas including tourism, mining, and natural resource management.

For the past 10 years, Sharon has been focused on indigenous social response, working in remote areas of Australia with Aboriginal landowners to identify development opportunities. This year Sharon presented at the Mining the Connections 2022 conference, with her research from the MinErAL Network – a Canadian government funded project ‘The Knowledge Network Mining Encounters and Indigenous Sustainable Livelihood: Cross Perspectives from the Circumpolar North and Melenasia/Australia’ since 2016.

What is the purpose of the conference Mining the Connections 2022?

Mining the Connections 2022 is an international and multidisciplinary conference gathering academic researchers, students as well as government representatives, Indigenous and non-Indigenous community members, NGOs and mining companies to discuss mining developments and its impacts.

This international conference explores the many connections between mineral extraction, local communities, and the environment from a multidisciplinary perspective. It seeks to build and increase connections between governments, researchers, NGOs, practitioners, and community representatives from around the globe, in order to increase knowledge of mining development and its impacts.

I am working with Dr Gertrude Saxinger from the University of Vienna to finalise a book proposal about workforce mobility. We have a list of chapters and we are getting the authors together to present our chapter ideas, work as a group of authors to provide comment about each other’s proposed approach to refine the ideas throughout the book.  We are aiming to finalise the book proposal for submission to publishers after the conference.

What do you see are some of the challenges ahead?

For me the greatest challenge is taking a more balanced perspective of mining developments in rural and remote places. Specifically, the role of fly in fly out workforces and whether they really create a strong and sustainable community.

In Queensland, Australia, the state government, through its Strong and Sustainable Resource Communities Act 2017 (SSRC Act), requires mining companies that are within 125km of a town to:

  1. hire local employees
  2. house them locally and
  3. undertake a social impact assessment that examines:
    • community and stakeholder engagement
    • workforce management
    • housing and accommodation
    • local business and industry procurement
    • health and community well-being.

My concern is that international best practice for mine planning requires planning for closure from the outset. If we plan for closure at the time of mine design for instance, then we need to think about what will happen to the workers and the businesses that have been established locally to service the mine once the mine closes.

Remote settlements are highly specialised single industry economies, the closure of one industry, and unlike cities, do not allow for the transition of workers from one industry to another. All the research in Canada and Australia about remote settlements describe them as highly vulnerable to external economic shocks and this requirement by the Queensland government for mining companies or individuals to develop housing estates to house mine employees simply exacerbates this vulnerability.

The real issue is that the micro economic reforms of the early 1990’s has resulted in funding allocations for local and state government services and infrastructure being based on the Australian Bureau of Statistics Census data by ‘usual residence data’ and not on ‘place of enumeration’.  So local government and health agencies put pressure on the state government and mining companies to require the workforce to be permanent residential positions – not FIFO.  This way they get a larger slice of the funding pie than they would have ordinarily received. For local governments this is the difference between being able to provide the range of facilities and infrastructure that they are tasked to provide but the rate revenue cannot support.

In your opinion what steps are needed to address this?

Ultimately, we need to have more mature and robust discussions about the long-term consequences of developing these housing estates in remote places to avoid a future economic catastrophe.  A SIA that only focuses on whether the mine developer has addressed:

  • community and stakeholder engagement
  • workforce management
  • housing and accommodation
  • local business and industry procurement
  • health and community well-being – at the exclusion of long-term economic sustainability of the region after the mine has closed is very short sighted

This does not allow the mine developer to collaborate with the local government and health providers to examine a range of options to better support remote settlements to see them sustain and be resilient to economic dislocation.

What is industry, private or government, doing to address this?

Mining companies are held over a barrel in Queensland.  If they do not address the requirements stipulated in the SSRC Act, then they will not have their application approved. I don’t think the mining companies really have any choice but to comply.

I also think we need to examine the impact of worker retention for those mines who have a residential workforce vs a FIFO workforce.  I think the turnover for the residential would cost the mining company and the community (in terms of social cohesion) far more than FIFO.

What do you think are some of the key risks facing us if we don’t address this?

We should look to the past to demonstrate the consequence of not thinking about mine closure at the time of making the development applications. There are thousands of towns throughout Australia that boomed when mining was at its peak and are now either abandoned or struggling to survive.  For example, Cooktown in Queensland, a town that once had 30,000 people at the height of their mining boom, now struggles to supply services to 2,500.

Other examples include Burra in South Australia, Agnew in Western Australia and Mathinna in Tasmania. There are other models and ways of thinking about long term sustainable outcomes for mining towns, we just have to be more future orientated in the way that mining developments are conceptualised, and residential mining towns/camps are planned and funded to create a more sustainable long-term future.

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