Want to stop Adani? Fight the labour hire creep

Van Badham


To Australia’s right, the political conflict surrounding the proposed Adani coalmine surely represents the perfect wedge of Australia’s left.

A car-bound convoy of Adani-protesting environmentalists is currently en route towards the job-hungry industrial towns that ring the mine in Queensland.

“Stop Adani” protestors marched in Brisbane over the weekend, attracting several thousand vocal locals in support.

They’re unlikely to recruit an equivalent following in Clermont – population 2,000, and Adani’s closest town.

Related: Bob Brown accuses News Corp of 'disgraceful' coverage of Stop Adani convoy

Local newspapers from the area report that publicans and other local businesses are already preparing to place signs outside their shops warning protestors that they won’t be served.

Conservative number-crunchers eyeing the dynamics of Queensland marginal seat outcomes in the federal election would be well rewarded with a showdown between union-friendly workers and the travelling eco-warriors. The seats of Herbert, Dawson, Flynn and Capricornia are all marginals, struggle with unemployment and underemployment, and all neighbour the as-yet-still-mostly-hypothetical mine.

But a little old-fashioned solidarity from the environment movement towards Australia’s industrial working class represents a unique opportunity to invert the wedge against the right, and simultaneously both improve the material lives of working people and obstruct the potential carbon catastrophe Adani poses.

Believing the fight is between environmental activists and mining communities is to indulge a convenient fiction that suits no one as much as it does the interests of corporate greed, whose perpetual war-machine is ever in motion against both working people and the environment.

The real battlefield is a quiet one - and its combats are taking place, right now, in the offices of the Fair Work Commission and the federal court.

Adani isn’t really in the coal business. They’re in the profit business

The NSW Business Chamber is helping to roll a Trojan horse towards Queensland mine communities in the form of a proposed change to awards covering social and community services workers.

The ask is to create a new form of employment, the “flexible ongoing” or “perma-flexi” worker. These are conspicuous misnomers – conditions offered to the worker are neither permanent or flexible. If created, the perma-flexi categorisation would neatly avoid the current debate about the misclassification of permanent workers as casuals by offering a permanent contract with zero guaranteed hours of work. Perma-flexis would get a loading – but only 10% as opposed to the casuals’ 25% – and access to something like a rolled-up pro-rata leave pool. Rostering is entirely at the employer’s discretion. What’s created is not a permanent job, but a cut-price casual.

How does this relate to Adani? Because the idea comes straight out of the billion-dollar labour hire companies currently being used by mining companies to replace their permanent workforces with more easily exploitable, outsourced casual labour. Companies like BHP have already started their own labour-hire subsidiary businesses used to staff their parent company’s projects. The Liberal-National party government of Scott Morrison has given active support to those legal cases now before the federal court that seek to enforce the reduction of workers’ rights.

Establishing this precedent for companies enables a mechanism to roll out even more insecure work in labour hire, across all industries.

Adani has been spruiked to Queensland communities as a “jobs bonanza” since inception, and very heavily in the context of the election. But while its promises of “10,000” jobs have long been exposed as a self-promoting sales pitch papering over a reality of 2,000 jobs, the ongoing fallacy is that the jobs on offer would be permanent, “good jobs”.

That’s actually what working people go into mining to find. There’s no romance to the risks of black lung disease, respiratory illness, cancer and accidents that dog the Queensland coal industry.

But a process of undermining job security and workplace standards in the mines has been going on for years. Pay-cutting, condition-stripping labour hire employment models are creeping across mining sites throughout that state, and elsewhere.

You can see the appeal for a company like Adani. The foreign multinational has already earned an international reputation for exploitative labour practices, dubious financial management and opaque tax affairs.

This is a company that is facing accusations in India not only of wage theft on a mass scale, but also of exposing its workers to cholera. No exaggeration: actual cholera.

Related: Morrison and Shorten target key states as Labor makes pitch on workers' pay

Adani isn’t really in the coal business. They’re in the profit business. And the whole prospect of building the Adani-Carmichael mine in a world where the price of coal is falling rides only the back of precisely identified economic conditions that allow the company to extract as much profit as possible. To believe that strategies for cutting the price of labour hasn’t already been factored into their business plan is wilful ignorance, or delusion.

Awareness-raising alone cannot “Stop Adani”. What can is winning the fight over their corporate model in the places where that model is established, and standing up for secure employment and fair remuneration of people already working in a coal industry that will continue to exist as long as coal remains essential to the production of steel and cement. The active experience of solidarity now is crucial to what comes next; the hard work of thinking through – together – what good jobs can come out of climate action strategies in those communities that need those good jobs.

While division remains, disaster awaits us all. Because if perma-flexi goes through, and Adani goes ahead, you can be sure the only bonanza will be for Adani’s shareholders, and the planetary cost will have been for nothing.

• Van Badham is a Guardian Australia columnist