The Western Australian government is being asked to clarify whether Traditional Owners carrying out work on mine sites are required to be vaccinated against COVID-19 as part of its mandate for mine site workers or not.

Wintawari Guruma Aboriginal Corporation non member Director, Tony Bevan told the National Indigenous Times there was confusion over the matter and the corporation’s attempts to get a straight answer had so far been ignored.

WA mandated vaccinations across about 75 per cent of its workforce across a number of industries.

Those working in the resources industry were required to have their first COVID jab by December 1.

A recent email from the Chamber of Minerals and Energy WA to members stated – “Traditional owners undertaking heritage surveys on site are exempt because they are at the site carrying out their functions as a Traditional Owner (i.e. not as a worker at a location as defined by the Directions). For clarity, if a traditional owner attends site as a worker – by way of example as a truck operator – they would not be exempt.”

This email points to a section of the Public Health Directions for resources industry workers that refers to a person who is a Traditional Owner of the land where mining activity is taking place who is considered a “visitor.”

This is where the Chamber’s interpretation of the matter appears to differ from how the Wintawari Guruma Aboriginal Corporation understand it.

“To suggest that that would apply to heritage surveys where the Traditional Owners are being paid to provide a service where for instance the archaeologists working next to them have to be vaccinated and they don’t it comes across as though there are two sets of rules,” Mr Bevan said.

In correspondence between Rio Tinto and Wintawari Guruma viewed by the National Indigenous Times a representative for the mining company said Rio had also sought clarification around the matter.

The emails detailed how Rio Tinto had adjusted its company position on the matter based on the CME WA advising that the advice provided to its members that Traditional Owners carrying out heritage studies are exempt, had been clarified by the Department of Health.

Wintawari Guruma is engaged by mining companies to undertakes heritage surveys on mining areas that fall within a determined area. Their members who are also Traditional Owners are employed by the corporation us as part of this work.

“You’ve got these Traditional Owners in the mining camps potentially next door to our archaeologists and everybody else, everybody else needs to be vaccinated except the traditional owners, it’s an incredible double standard,” Mr Bevan said.

He said the double standard suggested mining companies could be putting efficiency and profits ahead of the health and safety of Aboriginal people.

“It appears as if they’re focusing on getting work done as opposed to what’s best in terms of the public interest,” Mr Bevan said.

“What happens when the first Traditional Owner is sick or they get seriously ill and even pass away, what’s going to happen then?”

Mr Bevan said he understood a number of mining companies had met to discuss the matter together.

“I’m told there were meetings held between the mining companies and that they were all told to stick together on this, even though I know some of the very large mining companies are very uncomfortable about it because it just sends an incredibly bad message,” he said.

“The government is trying to encourage vaccinations and the vaccination rates in the Pilbara amongst Aboriginal people are very low, I think below 40 per cent and here they are the mining companies are suggesting that it’s okay, there has been an exemption granted for Traditional Owners, when that exception doesn’t apply to anyone else.”

Mr Bevan said Wintawari Guruma is working towards ensuring any of its workers, whether Traditional Owners or not, met vaccine mandate requirements before heading onto site.

The National Indigenous Times contacted the CME WA, which suggested it was a matter for the State Government.

WA Health Minister Roger Cook’s office did not respond to questions from the National Indigenous Times about the matter.

In a statement from the government announcing the vaccination mandate for the resources industry earlier this year it stated “Resources sector workers potentially come into contact with Aboriginal people from remote communities, which means there is a risk that COVID-19 could enter a community from an infected worker.”

“Factors which increase Aboriginal people’s susceptibility to serious disease from COVID-19 include higher rates of other chronic health issues, difficulties in accessing health care and high levels of mobility.”

By Aleisha Orr