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BHP uses rugby league to cover up attacks on its workers

February 3, 2012

It is a fair bet to say that when people think of the Illawarra they think of two things: Rugby League and the steelworks. Up until 2002 the steelworks was owned by BHP, until its “spin off” Bluescope steel took over.  Illawarra rugby league has produced such legendary figures as Graeme Langlands, Bob Fulton, Steve Roach and Craig Young.


So, when it was announced that Illawarra Coal (owned by BHP Bilition) would be sponsoring Illawarra Rugby League to the tune of Aus $450,000 over three years, on one level, it makes sense; the most prominent company in Illawarra’s history sponsoring the most prominent sporting code.


However, the Illawarra’s experience with BHP in recent decades makes it clear that it isn’t as nice a fit as it may seem. The Illawarra Mercury reported today that, “Illawarra Coal’s three-year $450,000 sponsorship deal with region’s major rugby league body was a sign of the company’s commitment to the region.”


It doesn’t take much to see that this “commitment to the region” extends almost exclusively towards maximising its profits, with little consequence for the damage that does to local workers and the environment. In the 1970s the steelworks employed almost 30 000 people, many of whom were newly arrived immigrants, but by the time BHP handed it over to Bluescope the amount of employees was down to just over 4 000. Mass sackings began at the beginning of the 1980s and continued throughout the decade and into the 1990s. These job cuts devastated the area and are still having an impact. The unemployment rate in Wollongong remains much higher than the national average, while the average income is lower. While the city was devastated, BHP continued to thrive. The total value of its tradable shares is close to A$68 billion dollars.


The attack on workers’ rights isn’t just a phenomenon rooted in the past but rather something that is ongoing. On the very same page that The Illawarra Mercury reported on the deal as a “huge boost”, it reported that “The Union representing Port Kembla Coal Terminal workers has accused terminal management of trying to dilute its workforce ahead of further talks today.” The Australian newspaper reported that “The union is seeking an annual 4.5 per cent pay rise — the company has offered 4.3 per cent — but insists the sticking point relates to job security issues.” The BHP website stated that “ The Port Kembla Coal Terminal is operated by Illawarra Coal on behalf of a consortium of partners (Illawarra Coal, Xstrata Coal, Peabody, Tahmoor Coal and Centennial Coal) and leased from the New South Wales Government.” Around 100 workers began a week-long strike on February 1.


On top of this, The Illawarra Mercury reported on the 26th of January that, “almost 300 coalminers at BHP Billiton’s West Cliff mine will walk off the job next week in a move that is likely to grind production to a halt, the workers’ union says. Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) members at West Cliff will begin a seven-day strike next Wednesday unless a deal is reached in an ongoing pay dispute.”

The operator of the coal terminal stated “we are surprised that the union is seeking additional obligatory and rigid job security measures at a time when we are seeking to engage in a genuine upgrade of terminal facilities.”

Only a fool would concede job security terms to the BHP, which has shed over 20 000 jobs in Wollongong alone. Luckily, the CFMEU are no fools. Lodge President Adam Giddings said “For every boom there’s a bust, and we need the job security measures embodied in the agreement.”


On top of this, The Illawarra Mercury reported on the 26th of January that, “almost 300 coalminers at BHP Billiton’s West Cliff mine will walk off the job next week in a move that is likely to grind production to a halt”. Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) members at West Cliff will begin a seven-day strike next Wednesday unless a deal is reached in an ongoing pay dispute.

The Illawarra Mercury said the sponsorship deal “reflected the company’s healthy financial position”. So, basically Illawarra Coal and BHP have $450,000 dollars to spend on a sponsorship deal for public relations reasons, yet it is unable to provide job security for workers in the Illawarra.

What was even more insulting is that Illawarra Coal used coal miners standing next to young kids and rugby league players to sell the deal at the very same time it is trying to undermine coal terminal workers in Port Kembla.

There is a very good reason they used coal workers in their photos instead of Illawarra coal business executives, it’s because coalminers have played a crucial role both in local politics and local society. Whether it’d be coalminers being at the forefront of union disputes which laid the basis for real wage gains for all working people or being the backbone of local cooperatives which flourished in the Illawarra up until the 50s.

No doubt Rugby League fans, most of whom would be working people, would identify with coal miners, but there is no reason why they could or should identify with BHP, which has done its best to rip Wollongong apart while making millions in the process.

Up until the time that BHP respects worker’s rights, a more appropriate name than “Illawarra Coal Rugby League” would be the Miners Federation Rugby League competition as a reflection  of the people who weren’t just “here to stay” but played a major role in building  so many of the endearing things that remain in Wollongong.

One Comment leave one →
  1. February 3, 2012 1:29 pm

    This is quite a hawk eye view of how Illawarra rugby league is organised and operates. By getting down and speaking to the rugby league clubs/players themselves, you will find that local footy is about more than corporate sponsorship, and Bluescope’s influence on footy funding certainly doesn’t equal the be all and end all of the workers.

    Yes its a public relations exercise. Its also a legal requirement under its corporate charter. It is also a tax write off. It is also about cultural hegemony; the bourgeoisie having a guiding hand in culture and therefore consensus. Still, the story presented consists of wide holes in both critique and detail.

    The Port Kembla club has been struggling for years, yet produced some of the best players in the comp (e.g. the Cross brothers, the Simon dynasty). West’s does a lot better because the top end of town backs it. There is more to just BHP/Bluescope’s involvement worth noting. Need to talk about localised alliances between businesses and communities, and business both large and small weaving themselves into the fabric of the local economy and politics.

    Go south of the bridge past Windang, and you’ll see its the smaller hotels and businesses who chip in. Networks of family businesses along with bigger establishments like bowling clubs and the like. The steel works has a hefty influence on how those workers live and the livelihood of the area, but in the ‘Illawarra league’ they speak of, it is the northern Illawarra clubs who benefit. And… we’ve arrived at the divides in wealth/class in the north and south of the region, and can start padding out the critique in not so black and white terms.

    Speaking about clubs using kids for PR, go down to Steelers and see the anti-pokie tax propaganda. Kids in footy gear, with sad faces.

    – 12 years league junior and former number 9 for Warilla Gorillas, Rob Carr

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