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World Mining Congress — Keynote

27 June 2023

Namaste, Sawubona, and hello – it is my honour to greet you in the three languages that make up my identity, and I want to pay my respects to the identities, heritage, and traditions of all those present, and that of all those peoples on whose lands ICMM members operate globally.

Rohitesh Dhawan, President and CEO, ICMM (as delivered)

I am here today to make a special announcement. I hope it will come to be a turning point for the global mining industry on one of the most critical issues for our sector and society at large. Before I tell you what that is, I want to tell you a story that is personal to me. It is something I’ve never spoken about publicly before.

About 10 years ago, I was on a visit to one of the world’s biggest underground gold mines with a group of about 20 fellow Management Consultants, about half of whom were women. The mine was deep, and it took us 20 minutes in a cage lift to get down. On the way down, it was just the group of us in the lift. On the way up however, we shared the lift with workers who had just ended their shift.

As the doors of the lift closed and the elevator shaft got dark, the cage started to fill with catcalls and jeers, many of which were sexually explicit. We were tightly packed, and I could feel jostling and movement. I soon realised those were the movements of the women in the group being groped and touched in the darkness, and desperately trying to escape.

The noises and movements got louder as we rose to the top and once the lift emerged into light, everything immediately fell silent and still. Everyone exited the lift. The group of us looked at each other, we smiled awkwardly and checked that everyone was physically unscathed. We said to each other ‘phew, glad that’s over’, and that was it. We never spoke about it again.

I’m ashamed to say that on that day, I was a bystander to sexual assault. I did not try and stop the touching and groping in the lift, and I did not speak up when we exited to hold the perpetrators to account. I’m even more ashamed to say that looking back now, it wasn’t the first time I was a bystander to sexual harassment and assault. The truth is that I had seen similar behaviour many times in the environments I lived in - on a public bus, at sporting events, in concert venues.

I recognise that even having this opportunity to reflect on this is a privilege in itself. That day 10 years ago, we were a group of city slickers on a site visit and got to go back to safe homes that evening - particularly us men with our fundamental rights intact and unviolated. For countless women in offices, factories, and yes, mines, this is an everyday reality of their workdays, and sometimes a never ending nightmare in the presence of domestic abuse at home.

There are at least two takeaways from this story. The first is the deep flaws in my own character for staying quiet and not acting in the face of sexual assault. I have tried to and hope that I have rectified those faults in the man that stands before you today.

Without for a minute excusing my own failure, the second takeaway I offer is that when it comes to sexual assault or even lesser but still grossly unfair forms of discrimination on the basis of gender, race, sexuality, or any other protected characteristic - the environment and systems that we create and allow to flourish are the most important areas needing focus.

Without doubt, looking back now, my failure to act in the face of deeply inappropriate behaviour is inexcusable. Believe it or not however, at the time, that kind of situation felt “normal” because it had been such a common feature of the environments I had been exposed to. It was just the way things were, and tragically, in many places still are. I don’t know how to explain it but – I knew it was wrong, but somehow also that it was just the way things were. This is what normalisation of sexual harassment and assault in society looks like.

Seen this way, we should absolutely channel our outrage first and foremost at the perpetrators of assault or discrimination who should feel the full weight of the law and social pressure. In a close second come the bystanders like me, especially as Archbishop Tutu reminds us that “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor”. Quite quickly however, we must channel our energy and outrage at the system, those who created it and crucially, on those on whose tacit support it depends. And that’s where it becomes really uncomfortable – because that forces our gaze to turn inward to ourselves.

Each of us in this room today have power and influence in all the spaces we occupy, some more than others. If any of us manage people, set or enforce rules, or have a public voice – we have a particular responsibility. We may not be directly culpable for a specific instance of assault or discrimination, but we are collectively responsible.

That brings me to the announcement I wanted to make. On behalf of the 25 companies that are members of ICMM, today we are committing to playing our part to change the system. This means working together to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion in our industry and to eradicate discrimination, harassment and assault from our workplaces. We are committing to doing 4 things, all by the end of next year:

  • First, accelerating industry-wide action on DEI through the development of a roadmap to a more diverse, equitable and inclusive industry, including specific actions and milestones that we will take.
  • Second, each ICMM member will set individual goals on DEI where they don’t already exist, and we as a membership will set collective goals aimed at overcoming systemic barriers and challenges. We will revisit these goals as they are met in order to not only to sustain, but to drive ongoing progress.
  • Third, we will increase transparency by disclosing our performance relative to our goals, in line with the Social & Economic Benefits Reporting Framework that members committed to last year.
  • Finally, we will collaborate with our industry and stakeholder partners to advance progress on DEI issues, with the emerging solutions shaped by those they are intended to support.

It fills me with much hope that the Chief Executives of 25 of the world’s largest mining companies have collectively committed to these actions aimed at changing the system that we have all helped create. I believe it represents the first commitment of this scope at a global level from any sector, but I sincerely hope it will quickly be surpassed by others.

At this point, I hope you’re listening to everything I have said with a healthy dose of scepticism. You should be challenging me and the ICMM companies about what we are going to do in the spaces we directly influence, in addition to the industry or society at large. In fact, making a collective commitment without actions that we can each be held individually accountable is perhaps the very definition of greenwashing, for which we have no tolerance.

That’s why it is very important to us that these collective commitments come a year after ICMM members individually committed to a series of actions to create diverse, equitable and inclusive spaces in each company, and to be transparent about their progress. In June of 2022, a few months after the Everyday Respect report laid bare the scale of the challenge in our workplaces and communities, ICMM members committed to a series of updates to our Mining Principles. Although the report gathered data from one company, it reflected the reality of workplaces in many countries and confirmed what the research across different regions had sectors had already found. That’s why it was important for us to use the Report to catalyse industry-wide action, and to reject any suggestion that it was a single company or even single country issue.

The updates include site-based Performance Expectations that are a condition of membership, and which members report progress on transparently on a regular basis.

In sum, the updates to our Principles on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion reflect 3 key changes:

  • First, elevating psychological safety to the same level of importance as physical safety.
  • Second, implementing policies and practices specifically aimed to respect the rights and interests of all workers, and to imrpove representation.
  • Third, reviewing existing practices related to job design, work practices and remuneration through the perspective of gender, ethnicity and other diversity characteristics to ensure more equitable outcomes.

At this point, perhaps some of you are wondering why I’ve used this precious real estate of the Opening Plenary of the World Mining Congress to focus on DEI. After all, DEI isn’t exactly our industry’s strongest suit; given that only 14% of our workforce is made up of women, and the Everyday Respect report, along with other research shows that our industry has significant challenges with discrimination and bullying.

The choice to focus on DEI might seem doubly strange when you consider that there are plenty of areas where our industry and ICMM members have much to be proud of; such as how ICMM members were one of the first collective group of companies in a hard to abate sector to set a net zero scope 1 and 2 goal - and progress towards that has been very strong, particularly our investments in renewable energy and zero emission mining vehicles.

Or how our contributions to society through jobs, taxes, infrastructure, and foreign exchange are the primary or sometimes even the only route out of poverty and into development in many of the regions where we operate.

Or for that matter, the significant investments we are making and have committed to make in protecting and preserving the planet’s biodiversity, and in developing and promoting a circular economy.

There’s a simple, perhaps counter-intuitive reason for I’ve focussed on DEI today and not on all the other areas you might have expected me to. It reflects the way we as ICMM see the world, our role in it, and the importance of this moment in time with the focus on critical minerals.

It is precisely because DEI is an uncomfortable issue and an area of improvement for our sector that I have chosen to focus on it. Because fronting up to the areas where we have work to do, and owning our underperformance, is I believe, the path to building trust. It is not just about tooting our horn in the areas we do well, although there’s a time and a place for that too.

Look folks, let’s face it – mining does not enjoy the broad based trust of society globally. There are some regions and countries where the industry enjoys broad trust – Queensland may well be one of them. In other places, particular projects or companies are trusted and I’ve personally seen that across different ICMM members’ operations. But those are the exceptions rather than the norm – as by and large the impression of mining skews negatively.

For instance, the global polling company Globescan has been tracking attitudes towards all major sectors in 31 countries globally since 2001. In 2021, at a time when the focus on critical minerals was really picking up, mining was ranked the lowest of all sectors in terms of being trusted to fulfil our responsibilities to society. Worse still, it was the lowest score in 20 years.

I am sure you could find polling data from individual countries that bucks this trend, but I’ve yet to come across a comparable data set globally that is as geographically inclusive and across so many years. Believe me, leading an organisation that is responsible for the sector’s performance and reputation on sustainability – I don’t want to believe this, and wish it weren’t true! But I have learnt that when the terrain does not match your map, it is not the terrain that is wrong.

Even amongst those who accept that we have an issue with trust, some would like to suggest that’s purely a perception issue which can be fixed by ‘telling our story better’. According to this world view, it is foolish to volunteer information about our failures, and if asked, then we should deflect by talking up our positive impacts in other areas. It is based on the premise that if only people knew how important metals and minerals were to their lives, they would feel better about it.

I have spent hundreds of hours with people all around the world doing just that – talking about how there are no electric vehicles, wind turbines, or simply even the ability to grow food, create shelter or keep warm without metals and minerals. Never once have I seen it change the way people feel about mining. They may understand our sector better, but it actually makes those with a negative view turn more negative – for they feel complicit and trapped in the harm they think we are causing. Without doubt, that’s the time to correct misperceptions and baseless allegations of harm, but let’s remember that we need to appeal to both the head and the heart.

This idea of telling our story better and hammering home the use of minerals sounds so sensible, but it isn’t the answer to building trust – at least not on its own. Not only because it hasn’t been effective in the decades that it’s been tried for (remember what I said about 2021 being the lowest trust level in 2 decades?), but because frankly it is an insult to those that have faced any kind of harm from mining. That is not to ignore the benefits of mining or legitimise all claims of harm, but simply to recognise that while the benefits of mining can be regional, national or even global – and there are indeed huge benefits – harm is always local, always personal.

Instead, trust building requires leaning into rather than shying away from failure. Only through entering courageous conversations with empathy and humility, even when we don’t have to – in fact, especially when we don’t have to – can we become trustworthy, and hopefully, trusted. Others need to come to the party too, but it starts with us.

And why does earning the trust of society even matter, you may ask? After all, the demand curves for our commodities point up and up so trusted or not, the world needs us. Well, our ability to meet that demand is actually ultimately a function of trust. As the excellent work of the academics at the Centre for Social Responsibility in Mining at the Sustainable Minerals Institute right here at the University of Queensland have shown, the majority of projects that will supply critical minerals are in contexts where building and maintaining trust is essential and non-negotiable.

Take for instance the fact that of the 5000 or so projects currently under development for critical minerals, half are on or near Indigenous lands. If we do not achieve a step change in generalised levels of trust with indigenous communities and other near neighbours, it is very hard to see those projects being built, let alone in the timescales needed.

Or the fact that at least 4 universities have banned mining companies from recruiting on campus on climate change grounds; a stupendously stupid decision but reflecting how low trust can constrain the pipeline of talent we need. That comes on top of a chronic talent issue that has been building for many years; In the U.S. for instance, the number of geology and earth sciences graduates is down 25% in 2020 compared to 2015 – and I believe there’s a similar trend in Australia. This is the insidious impact of low levels of trust.

But it’s not all a lost cause, not by any means. I see great cause for hope and optimism that with principled leadership and bold action, we can inspire trust in our sector as a whole and unleash the transformative power of mining that we all know its potential to be. I am inspired by the many examples of ICMM members who have done just that and are scaling new heights in sustainable mining. In fact, you will hear from four of the those leaders during the course of the next few days; Mike Henry, Duncan Wanblad, Tom Palmer and Sherry Duhe.

So, I’d like to leave you with one final thought; we are at the cusp of the greatest growth of mining in generations. We must not let that be a reason for anyone to see it as an opportunity to mine at all costs. Instead, supplying the world with critical minerals is perhaps our greatest calling to make responsible mining the norm the world over.