Report: Your Perspective on a Just Transition in the Illawarra

Illawarra Climate Justice Alliance Just Transition Worker Inquiry

Interim Report October 2021

Preamble

The Illawarra Climate Justice Alliance – Just Transitions Working Group has been collaborating on the development of a Just Transitions vision and program in the Illawarra. The approach we have taken has sought to be guided by decolonial practices, situated in the histories and landscapes of the Illawarra, and to grapple honestly with the complex contradictions present within the broad frameworks of just transitions. We see a method for just transition in combining the social forces of the region that can contribute to social change, woven together through Country, Kinship, Culture, Journey and Connectedness.

Listening to and learning from the knowledges embedded within the Aboriginal custodianship of Country, the ICJA Just Transitions Working Group is committed to a just transition which involves practical measures of decolonisation, building relationships of care and solidarity, and orienting to the everyday concerns of those at the forefront of the climate, environmental and extinction crises. The Interim Report on our Worker Inquiry in the Illawarra is a continuation of this work.

Even though the Illawarra has been considered by many as a mining town for the past century, the region holds many more stories and much more time than that. Stories from inside the fossil industries are not privileged stories – the possibilities for a just transition are to be found in the long lessons of Country, in the struggles in the care industries and beyond, in all aspects of our lives. 

We must grapple with the limits imposed by the fossil industries. The decline of these industries sees a continuation of violence reaped upon Country and people. Temporary bounces in the price of coal do not offset the general change in the wind, and as profit rates bite, we see desperate attempts to dig as much as possible while the companies try to draw as much work for as little cost and with no regard for safety. What we hear from the workers who speak in this report are a wide range of views on climate politics and the industries they work in. They offer one way to understand part of what is happening around us in the Illawarra and help us to see how we might construct a common path beyond the short horizons of the fossil fuel industries.

In our work with ICJA, we aim to contribute to a creative, radical and just transition to an ecologically, politically and economically viable society. The report shows that the possibilities for this are more common than they might at first appear.

Overview

The Illawarra Climate Justice Alliance – Just Transition Working Group launched the ‘Your Perspective on a Just Transition for the Illawarra’, in May 2021. The survey invites workers in fossil fuel and associated industries to respond to a range of questions that cover issues including work conditions, climate change, and just transitions. The survey questions are generally open ended and aim to both share ideas related to just transitions as well as to understand how workers in these industries view and understand their own conditions of work, changes in the industry, climate change and just transitions. There are currently 16 responses to the survey, and it remains ongoing. The content of the survey reflects a diverse and complex engagement with issues related to workplace pay and conditions, climate change and fossil industries, government, and business interests, and just transitions by workers in these industries.

This Interim Report will provide a general summary of the survey sample so far, identify and comment on common themes and issues found in the survey.

The Survey

The survey consists of 34 questions arranged according to the themes of: Your Work; Wages and Conditions; Casualisation and Contract Issues; Health and Safety; Experiences of Workplace and Community Organising; Climate Change; Just Transition; Skills for a Just Transition. The survey has been shared directly with some contacts in the industries, shared on social media, and written about in the Illawarra Mercury.

The Sample

Seven (47%) of the respondents so far work in coal mining, with two of those workers specifying metallurgical coal. Four workers (25%) work in the steel industry at Bluescope, with one respondent working on the port and another in manufacturing (area unspecified), and three respondents in ‘other’. The duration that respondents had worked in their respective industry varied widely, from the shortest of six months on the port, to forty years in coal and steel. Most respondents have worked at least eight years in their industry. Two of the respondents, both coal workers, had only worked in coal mines. All other respondents had worked at least one other job, many had worked multiple jobs from retail, agriculture, care and health services, and retail to biosecurity.  

Common themes, issues, and grievances (by each section)

Your Work

Respondents had a variety of opinions on the long-term future of their industry. Some noted that steel will be an ongoing material that we need, and that coal is necessary. Interestingly, a few respondents pointed to longer term concerns, but that there was ‘maybe long enough for me’. This resonated with others who said that ‘they had not done enough research to be good for the environment in the future’. One stated that ‘Coal mining is a dying industry. We need to transition to cleaner energy production’. Another, a steel worker, considered that the industry did have a long-term future but contingent upon rapid adaptation in production methods. When responding to questions regarding threats to the future of the industry, the majority of those working directly in coal or steel industries pointed to a lack of knowledge about the necessity of coal in the production of steel, and the necessity of steel to contemporary and future living. One metallurgical coal worker acknowledged hydrogen as a potential threat to metallurgical coal in steel production. Climate change was noted by one respondent, while climate change policy and too much emphasis on climate change concerns were noted by others. China was also mentioned. One worker said overwork, underpay and stress. As will be apparent below, it is interesting that the dismissal of climate change concerns noted so widely in this question sits oddly against some more considered views on the realities of climate change that respondents raised in later questions.

Wages and Conditions

In terms of wage rates, some respondents were generally happy, but the satisfaction was always qualified. For example, one retired coal worker stated that they were happy when they were working but would not want to work for the wages paid now. One worker stated that they were happy compared to other industries, but not within their own industry, echoing another respondent who stated that wages in the Illawarra coal mines were 30% less than FIFO wages elsewhere. One worker stated ‘No, we only make a livable wage thanks to penalties, but this is unreliable. We make our money from missing crib breaks and working weekends and nights, but it takes its toll on your enthusiasm for the job. We should be paid properly and have adequate breaks during shift.’ Respondents also noted that conditions and wages were constantly under threat, preserved only by the union or enterprise agreement.

When responding to questions related to common grievances related to pay and conditions, thorough answers were given. For example, one respondent wrote:

‘Mining companies are relentless at trying to take away our wages and conditions. It is non-stop. They try everything. At the moment at the mine I work at the company has applied to have the current EA cancelled and the workers forced onto the black coal industry award that has much reduced wages and conditions.’

Another commented at length:

‘Disrespect from upper management. A revolving door of upper management, they leave every six months, no stability in management makes a very unsafe workplace. The rollover of contract workforce, just treating these workers like shit. The companies stopped two very experienced contract companies from working at their operations, to try and lower wages, so they could use it as an excuse to lower the permanent work forces wages…this just destroyed our workplace as we had worked with all these men (sic) for up fifteen years, the morale has gone from the workplace, there has been a few very big injuries to workers, this never happened until these new flops took over the mine. Treating workers, whether permanent or contractors like shit, is disgraceful.’

The comments of the above worker were echoed by others, who stated grievances with ‘no pay rises. Lack of respect from management. Culture of blame. Disparity in pay between management and front line workers’, and another who said ‘yes’, there were grievances, such as ‘pay increases often are below inflation making it effectively a pay cut’. In terms of addressing these grievances, respondents spoke of pay and collective action while also acknowledging the difficulty of achieving these ends in current circumstances. For example, one stated that ‘the union used to be able to help us, but the laws have reduced their access to the workplace and our access to them that much, that we now have a dangerous workplace, but this is what the liberal government want.’ Others said industrial action was necessary, while another stated that the company (Peabody) needed to be shamed in the media.

Casualisation and Contract Issues

Casualisation and temp working was widely criticised as undermining the conditions of work across industries, and linked to increasingly dangerous conditions at work, particularly within mining. Respondents noted that the rate of casualisation has increased rapidly. One stated that there ‘are a lot more casuals than there used to be’, with another saying that this has ‘negative effects on mental health due to work instability, and it puts downward pressure on everyone’s wages’. Another further emphasised that casualisation means ‘no security, unable to lend money, frightened to speak up about safety, the list goes on. Labour hire is a scourge & should be shut down.’ Another clearly identified the rationale for this, stating ‘The company is always trying to bring in more contract workers as they are paid less and don’t have the same rights as permanent employees’. Another reiterated this point, ‘the company is driving toward fixed term contract labour and seem to think they can use labour hire instead of training permanent workers’. Another respondent argued that ‘it’s a bloody disgrace, these men should be permanent workers, not contractors, the mine company treats everyone like shit, and contractors are treated worse, we now have blokes with 6 months experience training new blokes, so it just ends up with a dangerous workforce’. Speaking from personal experience, one said that ‘I was ALWAYS employed as a casual or contractor. You feel temporary because you are. You feel undervalued because you are. There’s no financial security. You’re on good money but have to save every penny because you could be without a job next week for 2 years! A lot of colleagues had other side hustles, one guy ran a concreting business, another owned a fish farm for example’. One worker spoke from personal experience, telling that ‘yeah, this was me. I was contracted through SCT Wollongong, my pay was less than direct employees. I didn’t have holidays or sick leave, or pay increases. I worked in a freezing cold core shed or out on the rig. Sometimes it was 45 degrees on site. I got heat stroke a couple times despite correct ppe and drinking 4-6L water a day’.

Health and Safety

As indicated above, there is a clear identification of the link between insecure work and unsafe work conditions. Some respondents pointed to this directly, stating that if there is an increase in ‘the permanent workforce…you get increased safety’, while another said that ‘our workplace is only safe due to the permanent workforce actually doing their job correctly, which is something the company hates, they would love you to take shortcuts, but hang you when something goes wrong’. The intensification of work was also commented on, where ‘being expected to do more leads to higher risk exposure’.

When responding to the question of whether the erosion of work conditions impacts health and safety one person said ‘yes, because people who are casual or contractors have a tendency to not report accidents or near misses for fear of being victimised’. One respondent commented at length on this question:

‘Yes, the company becomes a standover man, they try it now, handing written warnings out like they are tissues. They don’t like listening to anything the workforce has to say and reduce the interaction between middle management and the workforce, they make you jump through hoops just to get something done. It’s become a joke, makes an extremely unsafe workplace, we have had a heap of big injuries and accidents in the last 5 years, previous to that we were very good with our injuries and safety.’

Other respondents pointed to issues of isolation, tiredness, mental health issues, and distraction as a risk at work.

Experiences of Workplace and Community Organising

Comments in this section were brief. At least half of the respondents had some involvement in the union of their industry and sometimes more than one union in an industry. Respondents also stated they had some engagement with community organising, though the nature of this community organising was almost always unspecified. One respondent stated that ‘Our union is the only thing between the company paying us 2 bucks an hour and not giving a shit about safety’.

Climate Change

When responding to the question of how concerned are you about climate change?, 75% of respondents said they were ‘very’ concerned, others said somewhat or mildly concerned, while two respondents said they were not concerned. For those concerned, one stated that they were very concerned because they wanted ‘a liveable, sustainable planet’. Another elaborated that they were ‘Very concerned. We are already living through the impacts of a changing climate. I can’t imagine what the future will hold if this is what we are seeing now – such severe bushfires and floods, such a widespread pandemic. What will come next?’. One steel worker identified the contradiction at hand, stating ‘very, though I realise steelmaking must continue or society collapses…I’d like to see hydrogen steelmaking replace coking coal quickly’. Others noted that the area is beautiful and would hate to see it disappear, while others simply acknowledged that not nearly enough was being done to mitigate climate change.

Some respondents noted that climate change was occurring, but argued it was not human caused and that the climate is always changing. Another stated that while they were concerned, they thought the issue was overhyped and was not taking place as quickly as it is argued.

For a number of respondents, the reasons given for concern sit oddly against the unproblematic vision for the future of their industries given in earlier questions. For example, one argued that we need to ‘stop using coal, stop using natural gas, we have the technology to replace them both but not the political will’. Another stated that we need ‘complete global systematic change’ with a second arguing for ‘Complete energy system transformation’. Another argued that we need to ‘stop supporting fossil fuel industries and promote renewables. Replace the entire government’, this was echoed in the comment that we need to ‘stop funding old methods of fuel and get smarter. Sustainable, renewable energy is the way to go. Countries around the world are more progressive than Australia’. Another commented on the need for ‘immediate decarbonisation of all industries’. Another stated that we need electric cars and the reduction of pollution. One said, ‘we need to end fossil fuels, YESTERDAY. And invest in renewables now’, while another argued to ‘Reduce coal fired power stations, fuel cars, and cattle’.

Even for those who did not agree with the above comments, there was still an acknowledgment of the need for change, although for these people it focused on either nuclear energy or population control. Despite the responses in the first section of the survey, which indicated that respondents did not see any real need for change, in this section there is clearly a far more complicated engagement with the issue of climate change, and the specific role of the fossil industries in this process. This is worth trying to understand further.

Just Transition

Questions regarding the meaning and viability of a just transition again brought forth a variety of responses, provoking hostility from some while being a desirable if hard to achieve goal for others. For those that were not convinced of a just transition, comments included that a just transition was ‘pie in the sky’, ‘communist thinking’, while one stated that ‘anything that stifles free competition is not just’. However, the majority of respondents had a complex engagement with the need for a just transition. This is evident in the following comments. For example, one respondent commented that a just transition meant that ‘all workers who will lose jobs due to decarbonisation given equivalent job opportunities in emerging industries and given training where required at no cost to themselves’. Another commented that a just transition meant ‘a transition away from a society organised around profit maximization to one organised around the reproduction and nourishment of life’. Another noted that it meant ‘ending an industry but finding fair work for the people supplanted by the change’, while one also commented that it was ‘systematic changes that keeps workers in mind’.

In terms of the prospects for implementing this sort of change, again a range of viewpoints were provided while at the same time considering the political and economic limits such a transition would face at both the personal and systemic level. For example, one commented that they could

‘imagine lots of things that won’t happen. It’s hard because a lot of people working in coal mining have spent their whole careers here, they have qualifications and skills which only apply to coal mining (undermanagers, deputies) and the pay is very good. It would be very hard to shut down all the coal mines tomorrow and find new work for people who have spent a life developing skills exclusively in coal mining.’

Another was dubious about the prospects for the green economy: ‘young coal miners are struggling to afford housing on good money. How will they own a house on “green” wages?’

But others were more optimistic. One thought it was possible but saw the government as an obstacle: ‘Yes, it’s a matter of willingness and government legislating it’. Another thought that ‘it can be done in other countries, of course it can be done here. We have vested interest here saying it can’t happen, this is a lie’.

For others, while it was desirable it was not possible due to economic interests. For example, ‘this won’t happen as Australia has a huge amount of resources that every mining company wants and every political party wants that money’. Another said, ‘no, feral (sic) government LNP are opposing changes’.

For others, it was possible because ‘of course there will be transition, and success will be viewed differently by different people’. For one it was a case of ‘yes, I’m a realistic optimist’ and another said, ‘yes, workers seize the means of production’.

IPCC Report and Radical Transformation

The following question referred to an IPCC statement on the need for a radical transformation of development, work, the economy, and life in general. When asked if this was possible or likely, responses became polarised again. Some were dismissive of the statement, with one saying ‘I don’t agree radical change is necessary’. Another dismissed this saying ‘they can say what they want…you can’t just close an industry…what are we going to do?’ Interestingly these comments hung on the underlying point that ‘everything [is] made from mining and resources’. One other respondent said that, ‘this is a group who have their own agenda’. One person again saw it as ‘too late’, but also linked this to ‘nobody wants to talk about population control’. Another, saw the IPCC comment as a threat to ‘our way of life’. The IPCC statement did, then, provoke some reactionary responses.

One was simply not convinced it was possible, while another said ‘No. I don’t think it’s possible. I have very little faith in society to welcome and support the change that is necessary’. But a number of people did think it was possible, though the agent of change was generally identified as the government. For example,

‘It has to be government willpower. We cant expect consumers to just stop buying products which aren’t carbon neutral. We need transition plans, tax incentives to encourage green steel production, and import protection so that if our industry transitions, we aren’t simply out competed by foreign steel made by coking coal.’

This general point was reiterated by others, who simply said, ‘yes new government’, or another who said, ‘yes. With government support and education’. Another identified the need for ‘leadership to get there’.

Two others had a slightly different emphasis on what was necessary. Rather than looking to government to lead the change, one respondent said ‘yes, if the economy is taken out of the hands of the elite’. One other respondent emphasised that ‘there are so many technologies available to allow this. Renewables, electric cars, hydrogen etc’. One last comment returned to the limitations of the present, noting that it is ‘hard to when our livelihoods are heavily ingrained in coal mining and steel manufacturing’.

Accountability, Community Control & Transition Possibilities

When asked about the importance of holding governments, corporations and political institutions to account, there was an overwhelming response that it was important – though the basis of support for this split, with a minority of respondents linking the need for accountability to reigning in the climate change narrative. Most respondents simply indicated that it was ‘very’ important, but governments, corporations and political institutions are untrustworthy, and it is hard to hold them to account.

The question on supporting community control over processes of social development drew very general responses of yes or no, or confusion on the meaning of the question.

When asked about the need for moving away from environmentally destructive industries, away from damaging jobs, towards socially useful work that sustains life and livelihoods, a range of responses reflecting geopolitical considerations, a desire to do so but acknowledgement of the difficulty of doing so, and a return to the consideration of wages.

For example, one person commented that ‘steel and the coal that is used to make it is required long term’, while another said that it needs to be ‘balanced’. One respondent was dismissive and seemed to think that the only work left after addressing the change would be stationary, computer-based work.

Others thought that addressing these issues would lead to competitive weaknesses and loss of work. One thought, ‘no, we need those industries…the developing world will take no notice and will operate with less concern for pollution, worrying safety and employee conditions just as they do now, it will only be to Australia’s detriment to continue to attack our industries and power production capability’, returning to concerns of China and nationalistic protections for Australia. Similar sentiments were expressed by another respondent who thought it was possible, stating ‘very much so. But not if it just pushes it onto another country’.

One respondent said that they were ‘not against it but it’s hard to earn a good wage in those sectors’, while another said ‘yes but refer to my earlier answers on wages’. Four respondents agreed with the need to do so, simply stating ‘absolutely’, ‘fully support the idea’.

The question posed about shorter work hours, guaranteed income and sustainable work received overwhelming positive responses from the majority of respondents, though desirability was not always matched with possibility. One commented, ‘who wouldn’t, it just depends on the sacrifices you propose to achieve that goal’, while another said ‘of course, but maybe not possible’. Others said, ‘absolutely’, ‘100%’, ‘hell yes!!!’. Two of the respondents disagreed.

On the issue of whether climate and environmental justice coincides with economic and social justice answers varied. One saw ‘jobs and cost of living [as] the only things that matter’, while another thought it was ‘deluded’ to see these as the same issues. However, the majority of respondents had much more complex responses to this question. Greed and ‘power over’ were named by more than one person as the key issues limiting a better future at the moment. Another argued that the current issues is one of overproduction. One other respondent put it like this,

It does in some instances, like third world countries that rely on crappy coal to try to keep up with the first world. I get that. But there are probably better solutions. Think of how much money is locked up in rich peoples’ accounts. Imagine if that was redistributed where funds are needed. I know that’s really basic, but the world could be a better place.

There was an overwhelming agreement among respondents that it is highly important to learn from the knowledges embedded within the Aboriginal custodianship of Country. While two respondents spoke of it ‘being too late’, most people shared comments such as it being ‘paramount’, ‘highly important’, very important’, ‘invaluable’, or measured versions of these points.

Skills for a just transition

This section of the survey was engaged with the least. Respondents pointed out that at times the questions were not clear. Some comments from across the section are worth drawing out though. When looking at current employment and industry and asked what could be done to assist a just transition, some pointed to retraining and education. The clearest response put it like this, ‘That’s the big challenge, a lot of these guys are older and have coal mining specific skills and qualifications. There is no new industry for them where they can make the same money, so there’s huge pushback.’ Others wanted less waste in the production process.

Most respondents did not state explicitly that they would prefer to work somewhere different to their current role. In contrast, one did emphasise that they would prefer to work in

‘Anything but coal mining. It is a toxic workplace where the workers are treated like slaves with no rights. If a young person asked me about working in a coal mine I would tell them in no uncertain terms to give it a wide berth. Mining companies are pretty much out of control with their treatment of the workers.’

One other stated that ‘I have a microbusiness now focusing on plastic free creative kits. I feel guilty for working in the mining industry. I am ashamed of my contribution to burning fossil fuels’. But many other respondents saw their current work as important. The final question of the survey asked how could ‘you and your co-workers help to build a just transition in the Illawarra’, which again brought forth a range of views, which complicates the earlier views in the survey dismissive of climate politics. For example, one respondent wrote ‘help decarbonise our workplace rapidly’. Another said that ‘community engagement’ and ‘common sense’ were necessary. Another said ‘lobby government. Protest. Strike. Put forward political candidates willing to lead on climate’. Echoing this, one wrote ‘Continued support for seafarers, more union action’. Further interest in a just transition was expressed in terms such as ‘looking at different industries’ and finding ways so that fossil workers ‘could have a flourishing career in renewable energy’. While one saw the continuation of coal as necessary, and another looked to nuclear power, these were not majority positions.

Conclusion

The views expressed by respondents in the survey provide a key insight into the deepening economic and political contradictions of the fossil fuel industries in the Illawarra. It is also worth considering how the experiences of the Illawarra can help us to understand what is at stake in struggles more widely, in the global fossil industries. As the climate crisis deepens, and climate struggles intensify, identifying points of commonality, contradiction and antagonism is an important task. While the sample in the current report is small, we can still learn something from the responses to the ‘Your Views on a Just Transition’ survey. Some of the key points that emerge in the survey are as follows:

  • There is a complex engagement with climate issues and politics.
  • Many respondents considered that varying degrees of change were needed within their industry to respond to the climate crisis.
  • While change was widely considered necessary, challenges to implementing change were also identified in the scale of change required, and the class interests of the mining companies and the government.
  • Declining wages and working conditions are a major issue, particularly within coal mining.
  • A concern about living standards in the absence of current forms of employment was characteristic of a number of responses.

One clear aspect to the engagement with climate issues is a complex consideration of what it would mean to grapple with the impacts of the climate crisis, and what this means for the industries respondents work in. It is clear that workers in fossil fuel and associated industries have a keen insight into the contradictions of the industries, and what it might involve overcoming them.

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