One of the election commitments made by the Palaszczuk government prior to the January 2015 Queensland State election was to implement a “locals first” program to legislate against the use of 100% ‘fly-in fly-out” (FIFO) workforces for the operation of mines located near a regional centre or existing mining communities in Queensland.
The introduction of the Strong and Sustainable Resource Communities Bill 2016 (SSRC Bill) on 8 November 2016 delivers upon that commitment and formalises social impact assessment (SIA) requirements for future resource activities in the State.
The years leading up to the 2015 election coincided with a number of resource projects becoming operational in central Queensland at around the same time. To overcome various skills shortages, resource companies employed (in some cases almost exclusively) FIFO workers, with the effect that residents from nearby towns were excluded from employment opportunities at projects located close to their communities.
As part of its election platform, the Queensland Labor government committed to investigate the impacts of the use of FIFO workforces in Queensland and commissioned a parliamentary inquiry into FIFO work practices in regional Queensland.
While the resulting report of the Infrastructure Planning and Natural Resources Committee made a number of recommendations which were generally supported by government, to implement these changes across both the Environmental Protection Act 1994 (EP Act) and the State Development and Public Works Organisation Act 1971 (SDPWO Act), new stand-alone legislation was required.
The SSRC Bill
The object of the proposed legislation is to ensure that residents of communities in the vicinity of large resource projects benefit from the operation of the projects – which is to be achieved by preparing social impact assessments for projects, employing people from nearby communities and not discriminating against nearby residents during employment processes.
The SSRC Bill provides that:
- For new large resource projects, ‘owners’ of those large resource projects will be prohibited from having an operational workforce comprised of 100% FIFO employees where nearby regional towns have a capable workforce. The SSRC Bill defines:
- a large project ‘owner’ as being the person or entity who holds the mining or petroleum lease for the project – however, the owner is taken to contravene this provision whether it is the owner, a related body corporate or an agent that employs the operational workforce;
- ‘a large resource project’ as a resource project for which an environmental impact statement (EIS) considers the impacts of that project; and
- a ‘nearby regional community’ is a town with a population of 200 people or more, the name of which is published on the Department of State Development’s website, within a 100 kilometre radius from a large resource project or as otherwise determined by the Coordinator-General.
- For some projects, the Coordinator-General will have a statutory discretion to nominate that the provisions and requirements of the SSRC Bill also apply to a worker during the construction phase of a new large resource project;
- The prohibition of a 100% FIFO operational workforce is taken to be an enforceable condition for the purposes of the SDPWO Act.
- For future recruiting practices at existing mining operations, residents of nearby regional communities must not be precluded from applying for employment opportunities available on site.
- For large resource projects assessed or evaluated by way of an EIS, a social impact assessment must be prepared as part of that EIS – where the EIS is prepared pursuant to the EP Act, the assessment of that EIS may only proceed upon the direction of the Coordinator-General. The social impact assessment must provide for, among other things, workforce management and local business and industry procurement. The Coordinator-General is to prepare a guideline stating further social impact assessment requirements.
- Amendments are to be made to the Anti-Discrimination Act 1991 which enable a complaint to be lodged in the Anti-Discrimination Tribunal by a person alleging that she or he was not offered work, or their employment ended, because they were a resident of a nearby regional community to a large resource project, that was ‘approved’ after 30 June 2009, and chose to travel to the project in a way other than as a FIFO worker. Under the proposed changes, this will also result in a reversal on the standard onus of proof – so that a respondent will be presumed to have discriminated against the person, unless the respondent can prove otherwise.
Key impacts and next steps
While the SSRC Bill regularises the social impact assessment process that has, in effect been undertaken in relation to resources projects under the SDPWO Act, the proposed changes also extend the application of these requirements to resource activity EISs being assessed under the EP Act.
The impact of these proposed changes on the employment recruiting practices of large resource project ‘owners’, related body corporates, their agents or ‘principal contractors’ should be considered carefully, particularly given the proposed evidential onus in relation to allegations of discrimination.
The SSRC Bill has now been referred to the Infrastructure, Planning and Natural Resources parliamentary committee for review. We expect that an opportunity will arise in the near future to make submissions in relation to the SSRC Bill.