BHP draws workers’ ire with late-night drinking ban at mines

BHP is facing a revolt at its mining camps in Australia after a ban on late-night drinking sessions prompted a clash with workers’ unions and accusations that staff were “being treated like children”.

Trade unions representing 20,000 workers that rotate in and out of remote mines say the policies, which prohibit drinking beer in staff accommodation after 9.30pm and limit consumption to four standard drinks per day, infringe employees’ basic rights to privacy and enjoyment when they are off the clock. In Australia, a standard drink is defined as about a half pint of full-strength beer.

The episode comes as iron ore prices touch records on rising demand, fuelled by the recovery of economies from Covid-19. Many of Australia’s big resources groups face skills shortages due to mine expansions and border closures.

In a letter to BHP management seen by the Financial Times, unions warned the company to ensure that any searches of workers’ personal property were conducted legally. They also alleged the new rules were being introduced without proper consultation.

“BHP workers are tired of being treated like children,” Shane Roulstone, national organiser at the Australian Workers Union, told the FT.

“If there are issues with a small number of staff these should be dealt with through normal disciplinary procedures, not through curfews and restrictions.”

Trade unions have not ruled out taking legal action over the policy.

BHP, the world’s biggest miner, said the alcohol policy aims to reduce health and safety risks at its mines and improve the wellbeing of workers. It is due to be phased in by July 1.

“To reduce immediate health and safety risks associated with drinking alcohol, we should limit intake to no more than four standard drinks on any one day,” said BHP. It marks the second time in recent months that the Melbourne-based group has tightened rules regarding alcohol consumption among mine workers. In February, the miner restricted workers to six standard drinks per day in a bid to boost safety standards at its Australian mines, where employees operate heavy machinery.

The industry is attempting to boost workplace safety following a spate of fatalities at coal mines in recent years.

But Roulstone warned that the policies were badly thought through and inconsistent, pointing to the fact that there were no restrictions on workers travelling to nearby villages or towns to drink.

He added that the policy would discourage employees from signing up to remote mine work, which typically involves them living away from their families for weeks. Working conditions at iron ore mines in Western Australia can be difficult, with temperatures hitting 40 degrees Celsius or more.

However, health experts suggested the policy had merits given mining was a dangerous industry.

“In the era when less is more, restricting alcohol in an environment where people are working with large machinery seems sensible,” said Michael Farrell, director of Australia’s National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre at the University of New South Wales.

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