Rio Tinto Autohaul in the Pilbara: The world’s biggest robot – where do workers fit in?


Western Australian District President, Greg Busson, delivered this speech about automation to a conference in Chile held by the Confederation of Miners in August.

Iron ore from Australia’s Pilbara region in remote Western Australia is by far Rio Tinto’s biggest money spinner – generating about two-thirds of global profits. Rio Tinto’s interests are spread across a number of mines including Hamersley, Hope Downs and Robe River, requiring a major rail operation to get the valuable ore to port. Over the last few years, Rio Tinto has introduced autonomous trains replacing train drivers across this network in a major automation project – creating the world’s biggest robot.

Automation has always been part of the resources industry. But automation should deliver benefits for workers and communities – not just shareholders and executives. Today I’m going to talk about the experience of the workers during the rail automation process to give some insight into how a just and fair global framework for automation can be developed.

THE NETWORK

The Rio Tinto Pilbara rail system is made up of around 200 locomotives running on 1700 kms of track, linking 16 iron ore mines to four port terminals.

A typical ore delivery comprises two to three locomotives with around 240 ore cars. The train is around 2.4 kms in length. Each car carries about 120 tonnes of ore each or approximately 28,500 tonnes per train and is worth about $3 million.

HISTORY

In 2012 Rio Tinto announced that they were going to develop an automated rail network in their Pilbara Iron Ore operations, this system is now known as Autohaul.

The 1st autonomous trial was conducted in 2015.

Trains started running on a limited basis in the 1st quarter of 2017, in Driver Assist mode.

The first fully autonomous driverless trial was completed in October 2017. Accreditation from the Office of the National Rail Safety Regulator (ONRSR) was given in May 2018, this was the 1st accreditation of its kind in Australia. Operations continued in Driver Assist mode until full commissioning of the autonomous system late in 2018.

The system has reportedly cost US$940 million/ AU$1.36 Billion.

DEVELOPING A GLOBAL FRAMEWORK

It is not the intent of this report to lay blame or be critical of Rio Tinto. Rather it is intended to give a “Lived Experience” of the workers, with an aim to establish industry standards for a Global Framework for the Introduction of Automation.

The key aims of the Global Framework are to:

  • improve the outcomes for stakeholders (Workers, Unions & Local Communities)
  • establish a transition path that is both Fair & Just,
  • provide greater opportunities for directly employed employees and other workers engaged at sites where automation is occurring
  • support local communities during times of changing mining practices.

WORKERS’ LIVED EXPERIENCE

The Autohaul project is generally viewed by the affected workforce as only dealing with workers as an afterthought.

A Rio Tinto media release on the 6th February 2012 states that the case for automation was purely based on a sound financial case and used supposed safety improvements to support the need for automation.

Nowhere in the media release was there any mention of the impacts that automation would have on the workforce. Was the impact on workers even considered?

No planning for retraining and redeployment

There was inadequate attention paid to developing plans for redeployment across the business as Autohaul was under development.
Initial ‘one on one’ meetings with workers were held during 2013-2014 but no follow up meetings were conducted. This basic engagement has amounted to simply informing the worker of what will happen, and discussing their prospects, rather than engaging collectively with the workforce about what is proposed and then decide on the best course of action.

Where group meetings did occur, workers who raised concerns were subsequently targeted and counselled by management to desist. The engagement process was only triggered at sites where automation was being implemented, but little was done at nearby sites.

Workers were not given retraining and redeployment options prior to the implementation of Autohaul, so that their prospects of redeployment to other areas of Rio Tinto’s operations weren’t maximised.

Poor job design

Since the full commissioning, drivers have been sitting in poorly planned and prepared remote Hub facilities with little to do except wait for automated trains that need resetting. We have seen an increase in mental health issues brought on by uncertainty due to the lack of ongoing communication regarding the automation process and diminishing meaningful employment since the full commissioning of Autohaul.

Discipline replaces redundancy

Rio Tinto has an admirable goal to manage the deployment of automation without forced redundancies. But at the site level, workers are suspicious. There is a strong perception amongst the workforce that disciplinary procedures have been used more frequently and heavily to push people out of the business instead of offering them a redundancy.

The union has had to run an unprecedented number of unfair dismissal cases on behalf of our members in the past two years. It appears to the workforce that the company would rather pay a minimal unfair dismissal settlement than pay the employees a negotiated redundancy.

Competencies not recognised

Existing rail competencies have not been accredited or recognised on an industry-level basis that is portable to other mining industry employment, putting further limitations on workers’ employment options post Autohaul. Rio Tinto proposes to have train drivers maintain their competencies by using simulators. Simulators have a role in familiarising drivers but jobs that have safety and operational risks require real-world competencies.

Fewer local jobs

The Remote Operation Centre has been established in Perth, some 1500 kms to the south, and a majority of continuing train drivers are Fly In Fly Out (FIFO) travelling from across Australia. Both practises reduce employment opportunities in the mining regions. This leaves employees who reside in the remote areas feeling uncertain about their employment and if will there be any future employment opportunities for their families in these locations.

RECOMMENDATIONS FOR DEVELOPING A GLOBAL FRAMEWORK.

1. ENGAGEMENT MECHANISM

An engagement mechanism should comprise multiple tiers of engagement:

  • At site
  • Regionally
  • National unions
  • Clear dispute/escalation methodology that is agreed and followed.
2. VOLUNTARY REDUNDANCY

Redundancy should be available to workers on a voluntary basis when their employment has changed due to automation and be binding on the employers. The oldest long-serving employees should be a priority for offers of voluntary redundancy as they may be less likely to want to retrain or re-deploy within the company.

Younger employees would be in a better position to retrain in any new jobs created by automation or be more willing to re-deploy to other areas of the business. Employers should offer voluntary redundancies across broadly across their business to make space for those workers who seek redeployment.

If the company is prepared to take away workers’ meaningful jobs then they should show due respect by offering redundancies rather than seeking to pressure workers to exit the business.

3. MAINTAINING AND ACCREDITING COMPETENCIES

Existing competencies should be nationally accredited and have portable skills, especially in an era where automation is on the increase and will require workers to redeploy across the industry.

Competencies should be maintained by creating opportunities live operation of the trains. For example, Japan’s Bullet train automated network is shut down periodically so that workers can operate the system to maintain their competencies. This benefits the company as it will ensure that the network can continue to be used if the automated system goes off line.

4. RETRAINING AND REDEPLOYMENT

These options should be available from the start of the automation process, it will give workers adequate time to make considered, informed decisions regarding their future. It will also enable the employer to set up a well-structured, timely training process that takes operational requirements into account.

Workers who choose to leave the business should receive assistance to relocate if they decide to leave the region.

5. EMPLOYEE ASSISTANCE PROGRAM

Increased resourcing and counselling should be provided to assist workers in dealing with the changing working environment. Assistance should not only be limited to support around mental health wellbeing, but also provide help with identifying future employment opportunities and provide financial planning. This will enable employees to make well informed, well considered decisions regarding their future and the future of their families.

6. BONUSES AND ALLOWANCES

Workers should share the benefits of automation. Bonuses should be paid as agreed/achievable automation milestones are reached. These bonuses reflect the ‘on the job’ assistance and support given by employees in the development of the automation process.

Allowances awarded to workers for operating the rail network prior to automation should continue to be paid. It would be seen as ‘Bad Faith’ for the company to seek to reduce allowances as automation rolls out. A worker being retrained for their skills and experience and being required to be available to work in roles for which the allowance is paid should continue to receive such allowances.

7. REMOTE HUB STANDARD

A mutually agreed standard is required for remote hub facilities, regarding issues like size, amenities, kitchens, air conditioning and communications. Automation creates longer and uncertain periods of time in remote hubs, with little meaningful work for people to do. The hub facilities are an opportunity to provide off-site training and worker development.

8. REMOTE OPERATIONS CENTRE

Remote Operations Centres should be established in the remote communities rather than build them in distant cities or move them offshore to save money. This provides ongoing support to these communities through continued employment opportunities. Governments and mining companies have invested in costly essential services in remote mining communities to make them more habitable. It should be considered part of a company’s ongoing Social Licence to operate to continue to support remote communities. After all, if mining operations don’t create good, local jobs – on what basis should communities support them?

9. WORKING GROUP.

A working group should be set up comprising:

  • On site management
  • Employee representative
  • Union representative
  • Off site management representative overseeing the automation process.

This working group would ensure that all stakeholders are equally represented and heard, it would also ensure that people are made accountable and it’s not just a meaningless “box ticking” exercise by on site management to appease management overseeing from a distance.

CONCLUSION

As previously stated, the intent is not to throw mud and hope it sticks, but instead should be seen as an opportunity to learn from those that have lived and experienced the automation process from start to finish at the front line.

Automation is a reality of our industries as companies look to improve productivity and take advantage of changing technology. But automation should deliver better jobs and more benefits to workers and communities – not just bigger profits.

We have an opportunity to correct the shortcomings already identified, to anticipate shortcomings not yet experienced and an opportunity to build a framework that supports workers from day one and offers meaningful options for the future. Above all, a global framework for automation must be based on respecting the workers who generate the enormous profits companies like Rio Tinto make out of the natural resources of the countries they operate in.


Back to issue: September 2019