Unvaccinated BHP coal miners stood down without pay

About 50 workers have been stood down without pay at BHP's Mt Arthur thermal coal mine in the New South Wales Hunter Valley as the mining giant implements a vaccines mandate.

Key points:BHP says a vaccine mandate is needed to provide a safe workplaceThe mining union is challenging the mandate in the Fair Work CommissionThe commission will deliver its decision on November 24

The mandate was first flagged by the company in August and required workers to have at least a single dose of a COVID-19 vaccine by yesterday and be fully vaccinated by January 31 next year. 

About 80 employees were yesterday told not to attend the site, but BHP said today that number had shrunk to 50 as more people came forward with vaccination certificates.

"The science is clear that widespread vaccination saves lives," a BHP statement said.

"This is a necessary health and safety control to help protect our people, their families and communities – including remote Indigenous communities – while continuing to safely run our operations."

BHP employs nearly 1,000 people at the mine near the town of Muswellbrook, with a further 1,000 people working as contractors.

Contractors are subject to the same vaccine mandate, but it is unclear how many of them are affected.

Catch up on the main COVID-19 news from November 16 with a look back at our blog

Mining union says mandate unlawful

The main union representing coal miners, the CFMEU, is opposed to the mandate, which it contests is unlawful and unreasonable.

The union is challenging the mandate in the Fair Work Commission, which is due to deliver its ruling on November 24.

In the interim, the union had sought to have the Fair Work Commission delay the mandate's implementation, but this was dismissed by the commission's deputy president Tony Saunders this week.

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A hill with a coal mine cut out of the side
BHP's Mt Arthur mine employs nearly 1,000 workers and 1,000 contractors.(ABC Upper Hunter: Jake Lapham)

Mr Saunders found the inconvenience for affected workers did not outweigh the risk of serious illness or death posed to other employees at the site and all their families and friends.

Within his decision, he said the CFMEU's assertion that the mandate is unlawful was a "weak prima facie case". 

He also cited the long list of benefits of COVID-19 vaccination in response to the CFMEU's assertion that the mandate is unreasonable.

Mr Saunders said there were, however, "serious questions" as to whether Mt Arthur complied with its consultation obligations before implementing the mandate.

Workers could be sacked

Fair Work's full five-member bench will make the final decision on the matter.

BHP has agreed to compensate affected workers for unpaid wages if the decision goes against them.

The company has also committed to not sacking any unvaccinated employees before the commission releases its decision and before employees have had an opportunity to consider their position in light of the ruling.

The CFMEU was contacted for comment.

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