Maintenance workers at the Griffin coal mine in Collie, Western Australia, went on strike for 24 hours as part of protected industrial action for a new union agreement on 24 June after the company forced through a 43 percent pay cut. The wage reduction affects 70 maintenance workers. Griffin Coal argues that “overly generous conditions” have made its business unsustainable.

Lanco Group, which bought the mine five years ago for $740 million, claims that it has suffered $300 million in trading losses. However, it will not release any profit and loss statements to the AMWU, the relevant union, saying that the details of its finances are “commercial in confidence”.

The company claims that it faces geological issues, with a high water table and multiple coal seams making extraction of the coal difficult and costly. The coal is also of poor quality, contaminated with sand and clay.

Its biggest complaint, however, is having to pay workers a decent wage. There is not a single entitlement or condition of employment that it respects. Salaries, overtime, rosters, breaks during shifts, use of contractors, staffing, redundancy payments, superannuation, travelling allowance, personal leave and long service leave are all issues that the company wants the Fair Work Commission to amend.

The company withdrew from discussions for a new agreement after 12 months of negotiations. It was seeking a 26 percent pay cut and an extension of the working week by seven hours. The company’s proposed agreement was rejected by 91 percent of workers. Enraged by the workers’ defiance, the company applied to terminate the existing agreement. Fair Work agreed without reservation. Under the Black Coal Award, the workers will be around $50,000 a year worse off.

They will also have superannuation entitlements stripped back, lose income protection and death benefits and have termination and redundancy pay reduced. The proposed shift rosters are disruptive and could be changed any time the company sees fit. Many of the workers have more than 20 years of continuous work; some have more than 30.

In his ruling, Danny Cloghan, the Fair Work commissioner, stated, “Unproductive, inefficient, inflexible and unprofitable businesses do not remain in existence as some sort of societal right”. Fair Work says it is in the “public interest” for Griffin Coal to maintain its profitability.

The legal precedent for terminating workplace agreements in the “public interest” goes back to the privatisation of Queensland Rail, Australia’s largest rail freight operator. Along with the name change to Aurizon, the company went on an anti-union offensive and, with the backing of the full bench of the Fair Work Commission, terminated 12 enterprise bargaining agreements in the middle of negotiations.

Cloghan reprimanded the workers for making submissions that gave “little consideration to the interests of Griffin Coal”. In his ruling he stated: “In bargaining, the parties have a complex relationship with reality”. He mentioned two workers by name – Mr King and Mr Chappel – and singled them out because they are close to retirement: “Intuitively, I consider it fair to conclude that Messrs King and Chappell will be less impacted by termination of the maintenance agreement than the person with short service [who is] starting a family and … in a different segment of the normal financial life cycle”.

So under the pretext of the greater good, Cloghan stripped away their hard won entitlements, leaving them in a situation where they’ll have less chance to retire in any sort of dignity after more than 30 years of exposure to black coal, diesel fumes, solvents, extreme weather and excessive strains and stresses from a dangerous work environment.

The decision to cut the maintenance workers’ pay will have flow-on effects to the town of Collie, which relies on income from the mine. The agreement covering mine operators is also due for negotiation this year. These workers are represented by the CFMEU, which faces an uphill battle to retain pay and conditions if the maintenance workers lose this fight.

With a local economy that’s already contracting, the mine workers of Collie face a crisis. Those in debt will be unable to sell their houses, which have no chance of retaining their value. The lay-offs that will follow will compound this problem further.

Workers at the other coal mine in the town, run by Premier Coal, have been in negotiations for several months. On hearing of Cloghan’s ruling, Premier Coal has pulled everything off the negotiating table.