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Mining giant gave ‘no warning’ about driverless trucks says industry

Caterpillar driverless truck
Caterpillar driverless truck

A multinational resources company allegedly told Queensland mine workers it would change to autonomous technology after it had already started the process, industry advocates said.

The Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) is accusing BHP of not consulting its employees early enough about a planned driverless truck rollout at the Daunia Coal Mine in Coppabella, 175km southwest of Mackay.

$100M invested

BHP Mitsubishi Alliance (BMA) is spending $100 million on 34 autonomous trucks, which contractor Hastings Deering will convert from the existing truck and ancillary fleet using an extra 30 workers.

NB Industries will complete the light vehicle fleet conversion while Radlink Communications will install wireless communication hardware across the mine.

‘Arrogant’ move

CFMEU believes the lack of prior consultation shows the proponent is not interested in hearing the views of affected workers and called the behavior “arrogant”.

“BHP is simply barging ahead with automation without taking into consideration the views and concerns of those workers whose livelihood is affected,” union mining and energy Queensland president Stephen Smyth said in a public statement.

“They are only consulting once their plans are already in place, when the horse has already bolted.”

Staff were ‘eager’

BMA revealed it hinted to employees about the possibility of a transition to autonomous technology more than a year ago, and at the time staff seemed to be “eager”.

“We have engaged with our workforce at Daunia over the previous 18 months on the possible rollout of autonomous haulage,” BMA asset president James Palmer said in a public statement. “Our people have told us that they are eager for new job opportunities and skills. That is why we are confident this is the right decision for Daunia. It will further increase safety and performance and help the mine remain competitive over the long-term.”

‘No job losses’

BMA maintains the switch will create new jobs and affected staff will receive a combined 30,000 hours of training in operating equipment, interacting with the autonomous haul trucks, or completely different roles altogether.

“There will be no job losses as a result of this decision and anyone who currently works with us, be it an employee or labour hire worker, will be given the opportunity to continue to do so,” BMA asset president James Palmer said.

“At least 10 regional and indigenous businesses will be employed to support the rollout, with contracts worth $35 million. This will result in 150 additional project roles for BMA people and contractors. This is on top of 56 new permanent roles on site.”

‘Other excuses’

However, the union is concerned the proponent could later find another excuse to inconspicuously downsize its workforce.

“We will hold them to their statement that no permanent or labour hire jobs will be lost due to the introduction of this fleet of autonomous trucks,” Smyth said.

“However, we expect they will find other excuses to cut jobs … unfortunately, BHP has shown through its push to replace permanent direct jobs with cheaper Operations Services labour hire jobs that profit trumps community interests every time.”

Industry support

The Queensland Resources Council (QRC) welcomed the move, saying the improved technology would make the mine safer and more productive.

“What we are seeing from the resources sector, such as BMA, is companies building high-tech capacity into their operations to improve safety and efficiency,” QRC chief executive Ian Macfarlane said in a public statement.

“Technology is a multiplier of jobs and, through this investment, up to 10 regional businesses including Indigenous businesses would share in $35 million worth of contracts, creating 150 project jobs on top of the 56 new permanent jobs on site.”

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The first Caterpillar driverless trucks are expected to be commissioned in February 2021 and the entire rollout should be complete by Christmas that same year.

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