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Inside the sex scandal at the heart of the world’s dirtiest industry

·5 min read
miners - Ian Waldie/Bloomberg
miners - Ian Waldie/Bloomberg

No one chooses the mining industry for an easy lifestyle. So tough is the work that companies have long paid “FIFO” (fly-in-fly-out) workers handsomely for long stints at projects in remote locations.

Yet alongside these already tough demands, women who have joined the gold rush have secretly faced a far more insidious problem: a culture of sexual harassment and abuse has for years been an unescapable part of the job.

This bleak reality was laid bare on Thursday as lawmakers in Western Australia published a report that details “horrific” sexual assaults and asks troubling questions of a seemingly complicit industry.

The state’s sparsely-populated Pilbara region remains a major hub for iron ore extraction, with workers typically flown out for weeks at a time by the likes of British giants Rio Tinto and BHP, as well as US-based Chevron.

They live in camp-style accommodation and spend long hours in the company of colleagues. For women, this crowded, male-dominated environment can prove not only exhausting but potentially dangerous.

Many said they faced leering male colleagues on a daily basis, inappropriate comments about their bodies or sex lives, the theft of underwear from laundry machines, unwanted advances and repeated sexual assaults.

It depicts a lawless culture that has thrived in the places in charge of supplying raw materials relied on by millions of consumers worldwide.

Libby Mettam, a Liberal member of the Western Australian Legislative Assembly, who chaired the inquiry, explained: “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.

“It is simply shocking this could be taking place in the 21st Century in one of the state’s most lucrative industries.”

'I have been sexually harassed at half a dozen sites'

The inquiry heard from 55 individuals, who made written submissions and provided testimony.

They all complain about similar things: The feeling they needed to be constantly vigilant, a perception they had to act like men to fit in, non-stop comments about their appearance and inappropriate jokes and questions from male colleagues about their sex lives.

“When I was on site, I often received comments like ‘what is your room number’, I would receive text messages from married men on my crew asking me to go to their room and give them a massage,” one woman told the inquiry.

“It is kind of insidious,” said another. “It is that bullying, that sexism, that is so casual but so poignant and it just beats you down, and beats you down, and beats you down, so it just gradually wears away at you.”

Many said the predatory behaviour went further, recalling how they were woken in the night by men who knocked on their doors and entered without permission, or even returned to find someone rummaging through their clothes.

“I had sexual rumours going around about me, to the point where people were knocking on the door … asking for a f***”,” one female worker said.

Others told of how they were filmed when showering, how their underwear was stolen and how male colleagues would grope or force themselves on them.

One woman told lawmakers: "I have been to about half a dozen sites, and I can truthfully state that I have been sexually harassed at every single one of them."

Another said: “I had men come into my camp room and push me on to my bed and kiss me. I was lucky that it stopped there, it didn’t for some girls.”

In a particularly harrowing case, a female worker said she was knocked unconscious after returning to her room one evening and woke undressed with her jeans around her ankles.

“I felt sick, ashamed, violated, dirty and very confused,” she told the inquiry.

Another said: “I had a man force his hands down my top numerous times in front of other workers and no one did anything.”

Women who worked up the courage to complain to managers were often belittled, ignored or abused further.

One who complained to her boss about colleagues who had made sexually-suggestive jokes was told: “I think the real issue is, you just want to f*** [colleague].”

Another who was involved in a safety issue was told by her supervisor she could “make the issue go away” if she had sex with him.

Mettam said she was “shocked and appalled” by the “size and depth of the problem”.

She added: “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.”

Among the recommendations of the inquiry is a suggestion that Western Australia’s state government should document harassment and abuse more extensively.

It says this could be done with a view to redress, which could include “formal apologies” from perpetrators and companies as well as financial compensation.

Lawmakers also called for “serious repercussions” — including dismissal — for sexual harassers and abusers.

They have suggested an industry-wide register could be created as well, to make it harder for perpetrators to simply move to another job.

‘Enough is enough’

Their damning findings come just months after a separate internal report by Rio Tinto found more than a quarter of its female workers have experienced sexual harassment and almost half of all staff had been victims of bullying.

Larger rival BHP last year also said it had fired 48 workers at its sites in Western Australia since 2019 after verifying allegations of harassment.

In a statement responding to the inquiry on Thursday, Rio’s iron ore chief, Simon Trott, said the company would closely study the inquiry’s recommendations.

He said: “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.”

Chevron said the findings “provided a critical opportunity to learn, act and improve”.

But ultimately, lawmakers have warned that the sheer scale of the issue requires top-to-bottom reform of industry culture.

“We have heard too many examples of unconscionable personal conduct in this industry,” the report says.

“This is a case where some of the richest and most powerful companies in Australia must move beyond careful statements of intent, and make their workplaces and their workers free from harm.

“To quote one woman who shared her story with us, ‘enough is enough’.”