This is the 'worst of times' for mining workers

Photo: Andrew Burton/ Getty.

All Australian’s know that the mining investment boom has ended. They know that there have been big falls in the price of Australi’s resource exports, and that the economy needs to transition after the end of the mining investment boom. Over the past few days Australian’s have also seen the impact of the collapse of global mining giant Glencore’s share price on our own ASX listed miners like BHP, Rio Tinto and others, not to mention the market as a whole.

But, amongst all the esoteric talk of price, stocks and economic transition a new survey shows the human costs of the end of the mining boom.

The Australian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy’s (AusIMM) annual review of mining employment shows that more miners are losing their jobs as the industry experiences the third wave of “redundancies and retrenchments”.

Unemployment in the mining industry is now close to three times the national unemployment rate with a sharp acceleration in unemployment from 12.2% in 2014 to 16.2% in 2015. AusIMM President Rex Berthelsen said this reflects the hard reality that many mining professionals have lost their jobs and have limited prospects or re-entering the industry.

But, Berthelsen’s concerns run deeper than that. In a release accompanying the latest survey he said:

Many of us have spent our careers in mining and we have experienced cycles and job losses before, but few can remember worse times and as an Institute, we are alarmed at the loss of good people who may not return and can never be replaced.

We are also concerned that a whole level of experienced managers is being removed, leaving the industry at risk of losing its ability to innovate and pursue continuous improvements in safety and environmental performance.

You can see in the big increase in unemployment that a huge number of miners have become unemployed in the past few years – 16.2% unemployment is a disastrous outcome for any industry.

But not all miners are created equal.

The survey showed that unemployment in iron ore was 23.2% up from 11.9% last year. Gold unemployment sits at 16.1% up from 14% while coal and copper have a relatively benign, although still very high, unemployment rate of 11% and 10.7% respectively. Coal unemployment is up 2.2% over the past 12 months while copper rose by 1.7%.

AusIMM Ceo Michael Catchpole is alarmed by the increased unemployment and said, “This sector underpinned years of economic growth and supported Australia’s economy through the global financial crisis. Government now needs to ramp up support for skills development, research, innovation and productivity improvements to maintain Australia’s position not just as a commodities exporter, but a leading exporter of skills, technology and equipment to the global mining industry.”

That’s probably necessary in some part. But, the trouble is that part of the RBA’s desire for the economy’s transition is a move away from mining after the resources, and resource infrastructure boom. That means mining and resource workers might just be seen as collateral damage by policy makers.

It’s something the survey seems to reflect with 30% of unemployed now long term and many of these now “seeking employment outside the mining industry and may never return to the sector,” the survey showed.

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