FIFO sexual harassment "out of sight, out of mind" for industry

OIL and gas worker representatives have pointed to a culture of silence on sexual harassment in the fly-in-fly-out (FIFO) sector in Western Australia, in submissions made to a state parliamentary inquiry on the matter.
FIFO sexual harassment "out of sight, out of mind" for industry FIFO sexual harassment "out of sight, out of mind" for industry FIFO sexual harassment "out of sight, out of mind" for industry FIFO sexual harassment "out of sight, out of mind" for industry FIFO sexual harassment "out of sight, out of mind" for industry

Parliamentary inquiry hears cultural issues run deep

Mark Tilly

Journalist

Mark Tilly

The inquiry was launched in July and is being run by the Community Development and Justice Standing Committee, after two former BHP employees were charged with high-level sexual assaults against colleagues.

The vastness of Western Australia's landscape has given rise to a prominent FIFO sector supporting mining, and oil and gas operations in remote parts of the state both onshore and offshore.

The inquiry will consider if there is a clear understanding of the prevalence, nature, outcomes and reporting of sexual harassment in FIFO workplaces, whether existing workplace conditions adequately protect against sexual harrassment, and if current legislation is adequate. 

The inquiry follows a report by Respect@Work, which found only 17% of harassment cases are reported and around one-third of people in the Australian workforce in the previous five years said they had experienced workplace sexual harassment.

The report noted the rate of sexual harassment in the mining industry overall was 40% higher than the rates across all industries of 31%. 

The submissions highlight that while companies go to great lengths to promote safe and healthy working environments, there are stark differences between the attitudes and actions within corporate headquarters and on the ground in the remote camps where their workforce is based. 

"Sites can be "out of sight and out of mind' for corporate leaders who may be promoting best practice workplace cultures at the head office," Engineers Australia said in its submission. 

It highlighted that the practice of requiring complainants to sign non-disclosure agreements meant the prevalence, nature and reporting of sexual harassment in FIFO workplaces was not understood and was not transparent.

"Engineers Australia believes women are deterred from reporting sexual harassment to their organisation for fear of not being believed, not being credible, or potential retribution," it said.  

Engineers Australia noted the deeper cultural flaws in a sector that struggled to attract women, noting women only made up some 13.2% of the engineering labor force, a statistic that has not increased much in the last decade. 

It said the male-dominated culture extended into companies' leadership and management levels impacting the workplace culture.

"Currently there is not a critical mass of women, and broader diversity of employees on most mine sites, that is required to overcome the ingrained cultures realised through male-dominated work environments and traditional model of work." 

Access to alcohol could be considered a contributing factor to inappropriate behaviour, with Fortescue Metals Group introducing an alcohol limit to six days a week.

Woodside Petroleum said in its own submission that while its workers can independently purchase and consume alcohol, it is not served by dedicated camp operators. 

"All FIFO accommodation facilities we use are situated in the local community and managed under procedures and practices to provide a safe environment and support a responsible approach to personal alcohol consumption," the company said. 

Unions Western Australia argued the source of sexual harassment and other forms of gendered violence could not be reduced to a single cause, such as workers having access to alcohol. 

"Rather they arise from workplace cultures and working conditions that companies impose upon FIFO employees with little consideration for the safety, well being and mental health of those workers," it said. 

Lobby group the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association said in its submission that while the oil and gas industry had policies and procedures in place to promote respectful behaviour in the workplace, it is not immune to incidences of sexual harassment. 

"The WA oil and gas industry has a zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment in the workplace, and although not immune to such instances, it is committed to working with employees, contractors and government agencies to mitigate the risk as much as possible," APPEA WA director Claire Wilkinson said.

Woodside noted that its induction procedures and annual code of conduct training include material to educate people on and prevent sexual harassment, saying "further action is being taken to further enhance those measures". 

Submissions to the inquiry closed last month with a report to be released soon after.