The CFMEU has struck back after Rio Tinto’s warned that Australian mining labour forces could be replaced by robots.
Rio Tinto CEO Sam Walsh has cautioned Australia against allowing resource projects to shut because of local cost pressures, and warned that Australian society and Australian workers had to ensure they didn’t price themselves out of the market.
He said that the carbon and mining taxes were an issue, and that Rio Tinto is banking on the repeal of both the mining and carbon taxes.
"It’s awfully important Australia maintains its competitiveness," Walsh said.
He said Rio Tinto’s push into the "robotisation" of mining was partly due to the massive wages the company has been forced to pay in Australia.
Walsh first introduced automated workshops when he headed Nissan’s manufacturing operations, and said that was done because Australians didn’t want to do the hard, dirty work.
"Some people have expressed concern about automation but quite frankly it’s getting harder and harder to attract young people to remote areas," he said.
"There are jobs for those who want them but it will be supplemented by automated trucks and trains and drills and so on.
"There are trade-offs between automation and having operators do things. If you are not careful it will reach the stage where people price themselves out of the market.
“The mere fact that we are automating trucks and trains in the Pilbara is economic. There was a business case for it. That’s indicating there is an issue."
He said automated equipment was creeping into the coal industry as well and the Pilbara was a testing ground for automated trucks.
"It’s on a case-by-case basis," he said.
"In the Pilbara, it was driven by the fact that it was very hard to get labour and I have not heard anyone complaining about the program we set up."
CFMEU national vice president Andrew Vickers lashed out at the suggestion that robotics would be implemented as a way of saving on labour costs in the mining industry, and said that comparisons of Australian wages to wages in other countries were stupid and unreasonable.
"All that’s happening is a very cheap, nasty, and irrelevant comparison between what those same companies are paying in far less developed countries compared to Australia, it is totally unreasonable," he told Australian Mining.
"How does Sam Walsh’s pay compare with the miners in a Rio Tinto mine in Mongolia for example, or any Rio Tinto mine in Australia?
"It’s stupid to make those comparisons, and it’s unreasonable, and it borders on immoral."
Vickers said mining companies like Rio Tinto that complain about wages do not give respect to the conditions workers face in the industry or the high costs of living in Australia.
"Wages are fair, in some circumstances they could be better, but they are certainly reasonable given all of the conditions , and indeed the profitability of the mining industry in Australia,"Vickers said.
"I mean wages are not sending mining companies to the wall, never have and never will."
Vickers accused Rio Tinto of having a bad reputation of ignoring its workers needs, adding that robotics and automation would not provide them with theability to reduce work forces.
"Rio is renowned globally as a company that despises the idea of having to communicate with it’s employees, it would much prefer to do that in a robotic sense without dealing with human beings," he said.
"That’s the nature of the company and I think that what they’re seeking to do both with their trains in the Pilbara and their experiments and actual practices with trucks and drills is all about just getting rid of workers because they’re a nuisance to them.
"They will need the same number of maintenance staff, there’s a question of whether they may need more if the trials and the actual operations don’t quite work out, if there’s more damage done to the equipment."
Vickers suggested that many jobs would still require humans to service and maintain robotic equipment, possibly more staff than before, and that Rio Tinto would certainly attempt to send those jobs offshore.
"You can’t put a robot in to change the oil on a truck or to change the tires, you can use GPS positioning, and someone playing with a joystick down in Perth, you can move those trucks around, but what you can’t do is replace the actual hard human labour on the ground doing the maintenance work," he said.
"Of course, if it could be done cheaply and efficiently, Rio Tinto would put those trucks on a boat and take them to Thailand or Vietnam or Bangladesh and get them serviced there but clearly that’s not an option, not at the present time.
"The idea of taking maintenance work offshore is only available to them if they get further assistance from the federal government in terms of 457 visas."