Women endure sexism in all walks of life. But in the male-dominated word of mining it has emerged in the most sinister form.
Shocking allegations of rape, sexual assault and harassment at mining camps across Australia have sparked calls for a parliamentary inquiry into the mistreatment of women.
While other industries can focus on hitting gender targets and bringing more women into the boardroom, mining bosses are battling to make female employees feel safe at night.
Shocking allegations of rape, sexual assault and harassment at mining camps across Australia have sparked calls for a parliamentary inquiry into the mistreatment of women
Last week senior executives at five mining giants, including FTSE 100-listed BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto, held an extraordinary press conference in which they apologised to victims of rape and harassment and backed calls for an official inquiry into the problem.
The show of solidarity in Perth was supported by Western Australia’s premier Mark McGowan, who backed a review and promised to try to get it started as soon as possible.
Stressing their ‘zero tolerance’ approach to workplace rape, assault or harassment, the mining companies have vowed to do everything in their power to make the industry safer for women.
This includes investing in more surveillance cameras and street lighting, and developing a new smartphone app which tracks workers’ movements and can be used to call for help if they feel threatened.
An industry code of conduct is also being drawn up for mine camps across Western Australia to stamp out abuse of women, who still make up less than a quarter of the workforce.
And, in a clear sign of the scale of the crisis, bosses in this beer-loving country are considering plans to emulate the booze curbs announced recently by BHP.
Mining behemoth Rio Tinto confirmed that it was among those weighing up tougher alcohol restrictions, which are likely to be deeply unpopular among its workforce.
Paul Everingham, chief executive of lobby group the Chamber of Minerals and Energy of Western Australia, has been spearheading the drive to tackle sexual harassment which he admitted is ‘prevalent’ in the industry.
This month, a BHP worker was charged with the rape of a female colleague in the mining camp near the company’s enormous South Flank iron ore operation in Pilbara (pictured)
He said: ‘The resources industry has got a zero tolerance policy of workplace rape, harassment, or assault of any kind.
‘Wherever it has happened previously we are very sorry that it has happened and we apologise for any hurt or distress that it has caused.
‘We now need to work our hardest to make sure people are safe at all times on our sites and that if an incident does happen they feel comfortable coming forward and reporting it.’
One approach, he said, is tackling excessive alcohol consumption among mine workers, which has been at the root of some of the most disturbing claims.
‘Some people love to have a beer and we’ve got to weigh up how much of a risk factor alcohol consumption is,’ he said.
‘On oil and gas sites offshore, alcohol is not permitted.
‘And our members are reviewing their acceptance or otherwise of alcohol consumption because it’s definitely a risk factor.
I can see the industry certainly moving closer much more towards lower consumption of alcohol.’
This month, a 35-year-old BHP worker was charged with the rape of a female colleague as she returned to her accommodation in the Mulla Mulla Village, the camp near the company’s enormous South Flank iron ore operation in Pilbara.
She had reportedly rejected advances from male colleagues at the mine camp’s ‘wet mess’, a dining area where workers often meet for drinks after her shift.
Prosecutors allege the man entered the woman’s hut – or ‘donga’ – while she was heavily intoxicated and raped her while she was barely conscious.
Last week it emerged that a second ‘fly in, fly out’ BHP employee has been charged with raping a colleague in Pilbara while they were off-duty in Perth.
Fortescue Metals Group also revealed it is assisting police with an investigation into the attempted rape of a female worker at one of its mines in Pilbara.
Zero tolerance: Western Australia’s premier Mark McGowan has backed official inquiry into the mistreatment of women in the mining industry
Female workers have also come forward to describe a toxic ‘Wild West’ culture at mining camps, with widespread binge drinking and sexual harassment of women.
There have also been claims of men trying to pay cleaners to have sex with them.
According to a major report published last year by the Australian Human Rights Commission, just under three-quarters of women in mining have experienced harassment over the last five years.
Speaking to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, one female worker said it is ‘sickening’ how common sexual harassment and assault was in the mining camps.
But Mick Buchan, the leader of the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union in Western Australia, said that the mining giants are partly to blame for this crisis.
He believes poor living conditions and gruelling working hours at the mine camps have fuelled excessive drinking and anti-social behaviour.
This, he said, urgently needs to be addressed as part of any inquiry into sexual harassment in the industry.
He said: ‘The evidence shows that sexual discrimination and harassment occurs across every single mine site in Australia. But this is not a problem unique to the mining industry.
‘It is a problem within our whole society, and it gets amplified where any group of people are taken away from the connection and influence of their community and their family.’
He added: ‘The mining companies will give out platitudes about needing to tackle sexual harassment and their support for an inquiry.
‘But the truth is they’ve been putting profits before people by actively undermining the stability and quality of community on their mine sites for the last decade to save a few bucks.’
BHP said it has brought in more security guards and patrols, and introduced a chaperone service to escort staff back to their accommodation. It is also investing more than £160million in further upgrading camp rooms and beefing up security.
This will include installing swipe card entry doors on ‘dongas’, more CCTV cameras, and security lighting.
Brandon Craig, head of BHP’s iron ore operations in Western Australia, said: ‘BHP is working hard to make our company safer and more inclusive, and prevent harassment and assault.’