Mining giant BHP in sex scandal after worker is charged with rape


Mining giant BHP was last night embroiled in a major sex scandal after a worker was charged with the rape of a colleague in Western Australia.

The alleged assault is understood to be one of the catalysts for the FTSE 100 company’s recent crackdown on binge drinking as it tries to reduce the risk of booze-fuelled attacks and harassment of female employees.

The Anglo-American giant was accused of violating workers’ human rights last month as it unveiled plans to ban miners from drinking beer after 9.30pm, and limit them to four drinks a day.

‘Poor working conditions’: BHP’s vast South Flank iron ore mine in Pilbara, Western Australia

It said this move reflected changes to guidance from the Australian government in December, which now recommends that adults consume no more than four standard alcoholic drinks in any one day.

The curbs will come into force next month.

But the urgent need to tackle drunken behaviour at BHP’s male-dominated mining sites became clearer yesterday as Western Australian police charged a 35-year-old employee over the alleged rape of a colleague near the company’s enormous South Flank iron ore operation in Pilbara.

The man, from Vasse in south-west Australia, has been refused bail and will appear in court in Perth today.

He has already been fired by the company following an independent investigation.

Fellow workers at the mine say a woman in her twenties was followed back to her accommodation at the camp – known as Mulla Mulla Village – where she was allegedly attacked.

According to the West Australian newspaper, the incident occurred after the woman rejected advances from male colleagues in the mining camp’s ‘wet mess’, a dining area where workers often meet for drinks after their shift.

The alleged attack took place in November last year but was only reported to police earlier this year.

Last night it also sparked a wider row over BHP’s treatment of workers, with a union leader claiming that the ‘dehumanising’ conditions at mine sites are fuelling widespread alcohol and drug abuse, and leading to more anti-social behaviour.

As the rape allegations surfaced, BHP revealed that it has also introduced a chaperone service, offering a uniformed security guard to escort those too scared to return to their accommodation alone.

Flyers for the ‘Walk to room service’ have been posted across its sites over the past year to make workers feel safer.

The flyer states: ‘Residents and village staff can request to be accompanied to their rooms for different reasons.’

These include ‘if you feel uncomfortable for any reason while walking to your room.’

A spokesman for BHP yesterday described sexual assault or harassment as ‘unacceptable at BHP, full stop’.

He added that staff now have to go through mandatory training in ‘respectful behaviours’, while extra lighting, CCTV and security has been installed at mining sites.

But yesterday Mick Buchan, secretary of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, said BHP was partly to blame for driving workers to alcohol and drug abuse.

Mine workers fly into remote sites, and often work consecutive 12-hour days during a two-week shift, before they return home again.

He said: ‘There’s no question that working manual labour for 12 hours a day, 14 days straight, incentivises the use of alcohol to wind down at night – and other substances to get going in the morning.’

Scene of the crime: Mining accommodation in Mulla Mulla Village where the woman in her twenties was allegedly attacked

Scene of the crime: Mining accommodation in Mulla Mulla Village where the woman in her twenties was allegedly attacked

Although BHP said it has invested heavily in its mining camps, installing gyms and even meditation rooms, Buchan claimed that life has actually become harder for workers as the firm has tried to cut costs.

One key problem, he said, is the introduction of a system of ‘hot-bedding’ to save money, whereby small huts called ‘dongas’ are swapped between workers so they are never left empty.

Previously workers would be allocated their own donga when they started a construction job.

This would remain their ‘home’ for the entire project, which could last up to two years and would be left empty when their shift finished.

Workers would put up photos of loved ones, and some would even plant vegetable patches to make themselves feel at home.

They would also develop a ‘sense of place and community’, said Buchan, as they would get to know their neighbours.

But he said the move to hot-bedding means workers often have no idea who is also in the room and cannot build any sense of community.

‘It’s well known that having a sense of place and community protects against anti-social behaviour,’ he said.

‘We should have learned by now that when you take people away from the support network of their family and community it’s not healthy.’

A boom in iron ore prices has helped to deliver bumper profits for the firm, and enabled it to dish out record dividends to shareholders.

But the rape allegations threaten to tarnish its reputation, particularly if more allegations of sexual harassment and poor working conditions at its mines emerge.

Rio Tinto, BHP’s Anglo-Australian competitor, is still reeling from the reputational damage caused after it blew up some sacred Aboriginal caves just over a year ago.

A spokesperson for BHP said: ‘We are absolutely clear on this, and all employees, contractors and those that come to our sites are made aware of their obligation to support a safe and respectful workplace. We continue to strengthen our approach at all of our sites and offices.’

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