Miners dig their own profit pit

Mining costs are blowing out and market share being lost because of a labour shortage that is only going to get worse. What are the companies doing?

The report prepared for the Minerals Council of Australia by Port Jackson Partners, on Australia’s minerals competitiveness, that was released yesterday is mostly an indictment of PJP’s clients, the members of the MCA.

Resource companies signed export contracts for iron ore, coal and LNG without having any idea where the labour was going to come from to build the projects. Now they’re blaming everybody else for the fact that costs have blown out and they’re losing market share.

According to PJP, resource sector construction wages have grown at a compound annual growth rate of 9.2 per cent, versus the national average of 3.7 per cent.

The all-in hourly rate for a construction worker in Australia has grown at 16.6 per cent per annum since 2001 versus 10 per cent in Brazil, 8.6 per cent in Canada, 5.6 per cent in the United States and just 6 per cent in South Africa, where, it must be noted, a group of striking miners was shot dead by police recently.

Some more stats: the cost of building an iron ore mine in Australia has gone from $US100 per tonne five years ago to $US195 now; the average for the rest of the world has increased from $US96 to $US150. So we’ve gone from being on a par with the world to having a 30 per cent cost disadvantage.

In coal the situation is much worse. In 2007 Australia had a 16 per cent cost advantage in building a thermal coal mine, we have a 66 per cent cost disadvantage.

Multifactor productivity in the mining industry has fallen 30 per cent in the past 15 years while in Canada it has improved by 10 per cent.

As a result Australia’s market share is flat or declining. In bauxite it has declined 7 per cent since 2000, reversing decades of market share growth, while in all other minerals except iron ore market share has declined over the past decade, also reversing many years of unbroken market share growth. In iron ore share has grown 1 per cent in 10 years, entirely because of the Pilbara.

You get the picture: costs are blowing out and market share is being lost because of a shortage of labour that is only going to get worse. To build the current project pipeline will require 90,000 more construction workers plus another 90,000 permanent mine workers between 2010 and 2016.

Whose fault is all this? Everybody else’s of course, especially the government’s.

Plenty of responsibility for Australia’s predicament lies with various ministers and bureaucrats of course, but the people signing the export contracts, the construction agreements and the enterprise bargaining agreements are the company managers.

A key recommendation of yesterday’s PJP report was: "Policy settings must ensure every step is taken to attract suitably skilled labour into minerals employment with skilled immigration in particular being a necessary element.”

Well yes, but the federal government announced the introduction of Enterprise Migration Agreements in May 2011, in line with a recommendation from a task force on labour shortages in the resources sector by Gary Gray, then Parliamentary Secretary for Western Australia and northern Australia.

True, it took the government a year to respond to that report, but since EMAs were introduced in May last year, only one company has applied for one: Gina Rinehart’s Hancock Prospecting, for 1715 workers to help build the Roy Hill iron ore mine.

It’s possible that getting an EMA is difficult – Hancock had to provide 2000 training places for Australians at Roy Hill, including 200 apprenticeships and 100 indigenous Australians, and there was a big kerfuffle about it among unions – but there is no analysis of EMAs in the PJP report, merely a paragraph suggesting loosening the "restrictive rules” around them. What those rules are, and how they might be changed, is not mentioned.

Apart from that, PJP suggests a range of worthwhile ways to make labour more available for resources projects, as well as a shift in the "national dialogue” towards the opportunity and benefits at risk to "strengthen the appetite for reform”.

But another key "reform” needed may be better management. It is the companies that have been losing market share. "Australia” doesn’t build mines and sell minerals to China, businesses do.

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