THE battle over set-roster "casual" coal mining may have taken a decisive turn with BHP set to fill up to 50 vacancies at its Mount Arthur mine near Muswellbrook with permanent workers.
Although BHP is declining to say anything on the record about events this week at the mine, sources close to management have confirmed that an announcement will be made next week concerning the new jobs.
The Herald has confirmed that news of the impending job announcement spread from a "state of the union" address - a meeting given to a full shift of mine workers.
It is understood a mine manager told these crews that expressions of interest were about to open to fill these vacant positions.
The Herald was told the impending announcement was a "show of good faith to employees, and is in no way related to Operations Services".
The reference to Operations Services relates to a mobile workforce BHP set up in late 2018, which critics including the CFMMEU describe as BHP's "in-house labour hire company".
Mount Arthur's workforce has long been split between those employed directly by BHP and those working for substantially less money through labour hire firms such as Chandler Macleod.
Operations Services was introduced last year at Mount Arthur, also paying substantially less than the new jobs will pay under BHP's Mount Arthur enterprise agreement.
The mooted Mount Arthur changes follow the elevation of new BHP CEO, Mike Henry, had held various senior coal roles in BHP since joining the company from Mitsubishi in 2001.
Mr Henry succeeded Andrew Mackenzie, who had run BHP since 2013.
CFMMEU mining division northern district president Peter Jordan said the union wanted more detail from BHP about "numbers and time lines".
"This recognises the move to a casualised, contract workforce at Mount Arthur has been a disaster, leading to high turnover, workplace division and a poor safety record," Mr Jordan said.
Sources outside of BHP have said that similar changes are under discussion in Queensland, where BHP operates nine mines producing metallurgical or coking coal for steelmaking.
Seven of these mines - Goonyella Riverside, Broadmeadow, Daunia, Peak Downs, Saraji, Blackwater and Caval Ridge - are owned in a 50/50 partnership with Mitsubishi.
The other two South Walker Creek and Poitrel - are owned 80/20 by BHP with Mitsui as the junior partner.
Mount Arthur produces thermal or steaming coal for power stations.
The industry is also waiting for a decision in a crucial test case in the Federal Court - WorkPac v Robert Rossato - which follows the chain of cases between the labour hire firm and the CFMEU, brought in the name of Queensland mine worker Paul Skene.
The Skene decision - along with the class action being brought against BHP and its Mount Arthur contractors in the name of injured former mine worker Simon Turner - is part of a wave of activity aimed against the coal industry's use of "casuals" on long-term rosters.
The federal government intervened last year with new employment regulations after WorkPac lost a full Federal Court appeal against an earlier Skene decision, which employer groups said would allow employees to "double dip" on entitlements.
Industrial relations lawyers point to another case last year - Birner v Aircraft Turnaround Engineering Pty Ltd - as having implications in this field.
In a recent online commentary on casual employment, legal firm Colin Biggers & Paisley partner Paul O'Halloran wrote that a number of working arrangements were "not disturbed by the Full Court authority of Skene".
However, Mr O'Halloran said, "the Birner case does not overrule the decision in Skene".
"Further clarity in this area of the law will not be forthcoming until Justices Bromberg, White and Wheelahan of the Full Court of the Federal Court deliver judgment in another case relating to similar legal contentions, in WorkPac Pty Ltd v Robert Rossato," Mr O'Halloran said.
"Even at this point, a High Court challenge by the unsuccessful party can be expected."
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