Home Agency work Australian iron ore miners face shortage of train drivers amid COVID closures

Australian iron ore miners face shortage of train drivers amid COVID closures


A train loaded with iron ore heads to the Rio Tinto Parker Point iron ore facility as an empty train departs from Dampier in the Pilbarra region of Western Australia on April 20 2011. REUTERS / Daniel Munoz

MELBOURNE, July 21 (Reuters) – Rio Tinto (RIO.AX) is asking train drivers working in mineral-rich Western Australia to work longer hours, following a decision by rival group BHP, so as miners rush to ship millions of tons of iron ore amid soaring prices for steel-making material.

The push comes part of a worsening skills shortage in Western Australia that has been exacerbated by strict restrictions on coronaviruses, which unions say have increased mental health risks for workers and their families.

Train driver Paul Bloxsom, who will be leaving Rio next month, said constraints at the Western Australia border to prevent COVID-19, including a 14-day quarantine, meant he hadn’t seen his family in Queensland only four times in 15 months.

“It’s a challenge in itself, the isolation and the loneliness, etc. There was a combination of things, and I was just had enough. And there are a lot more jobs returning to me on the coast. is, ”he told Reuters.

Australian miners often live in cities and take round-trip (FIFO) flights to remote mining sites, a journey that can take from several hours to a day, including connections.

As miners in Western Australia capitalize on a commodities boom that has fueled new construction projects, they must compete for workers with government-backed infrastructure projects across the country .

“Unlike previous periods of construction-led growth for our industry, where up to 1,000 people per week traveled to Western Australia for work, there are now strong job prospects in the Eastern States.” the state’s Minerals and Energy Chamber said last month.

Skilled international migration has also dried up due to Australia’s caps on immigrant arrivals.

Miners have been looking for ways to ensure they can keep production at full capacity until Australia increases vaccination rates, said analyst Peter O’Connor of Shaw and Partners in Sydney.

“Unless you keep people in Western Australia on extended lists, which tires people out, their options are limited – it’s a real and current risk to production,” he said.

For train drivers, Rio requested expressions of interest for a list of two weeks and one week off, compared to the typical list of two weeks and two weeks off, but said the request was voluntary and would include appropriate compensation. .

BHP (BHP.AX) has already mandated this list for its FIFO train drivers as a temporary measure until August 2022, blaming the skills shortage but drawing criticism from the CFMEU union who says it came at a cost to drivers and their families. . Read more

BHP, which has announced plans to train 200 new drivers, said it offers support to FIFO interstate employees, including financial assistance for temporary and permanent relocation, flexible work options, as well as support in mental health.

Rio said it is looking to recruit drivers and is also providing temporary and permanent relocation packages for interstate workers.

The state government is also taking steps to increase the number of skilled workers, but noted in a statement that its strict border measures have prevented COVID-19 and helped boost the national economy.

The CFMEU, however, wants miners and the government to find ways for FIFO workers to spend less time in quarantine and more time with their families, said Greg Busson, secretary of CFMEU’s mining and energy division.

“We’ve been dealing with this for 18 months now, surely we have lessons to learn,” he said.

Reporting by Melanie Burton; edited by Richard Pullin

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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