Australia: Should mining companies pay back JobKeeper cash amid WA’s latest boom?

Australia: Should mining companies pay back JobKeeper cash amid WA’s latest boom?

The Association of Mining and Exploration Companies (AMEC) says mining companies that received JobKeeper payments from the federal government should not feel pressured into paying the money back.

Key points:

  • When announcing JobKeeper, the Federal Government said most companies would need to show a 30 per cent fall in turnover
  • Once employers qualified — based on an actual downturn or a projection — they received $1,500 per eligible employee each fortnight
  • All ASX-listed companies have been required by ASIC to disclose how much they were paid under the JobKeeper scheme

The wage subsidy program was the largest economic support in Australia’s history, costing $89 billion until it was axed in March.

With Western Australia’s border restrictions seemingly shielding its latest mining boom from the pandemic, some companies which had initially feared the financial fallout have now decided to voluntarily repay the JobKeeper cash. 

Among them is mineral sands miner Iluka Resources, which operates the Cataby mine, 150km north of Perth, the Capel processing facility in the South West and the Narngulu mineral separation plant near Geraldton.  

Iluka has repaid $13.8 million after initially signing up 732 workers for JobKeeper.

Lynas Rare Earths, which operates the Mt Weld mine near Laverton in WA’s northern Goldfields and is building a $500 million refinery in Kalgoorlie, repaid more than half of the $1.6 million it received.

On the other side of the coin, WA gold miner Wiluna Mining Corporation (WMC) has so far pocketed the $3.15 million it was paid, and nickel miner Panoramic Resources has kept $2.01 million.

A man in a suit and tie speaking to media
Warren Pearce is CEO of the Association of Mining and Exploration Companies based in Perth.  

AMEC CEO Warren Pearce said it should be up to individual companies to consider their financial position and decide if they keep the money.

“If companies who took the money, whether they were in our industry or any other, took it for the right purposes, for the intended purposes which was to keep their people employed until they could turn things around, then I don’t have any problem with them taking the money and not repaying it,” Mr Pearce said.

He said he was confident there was no rorting of the system within the mining industry.

“As long as people used these programs the way they were intended to operate.

“And I strongly think that our industry did, those few that were eligible for it and decided to take it, probably have actually needed it, and it’s been put to good use,” Mr Pearce said.

“The companies you have talked to me about are probably turning that into growth now.”

‘We’ll have the discussion’

Wiluna Mining Corporation (WMC) signed up 121 employees for JobKeeper in the 2019-20 financial year.

A total of 146 employees were on the scheme last financial year until the government axed JobKeeper in March.

It comes as work on an $81 million expansion of the company’s Wiluna gold mine nears completion in WA’s northern Goldfields.

WMC has told the stock market that construction is 90 per cent complete with commissioning due to begin next month.

A bird's eye view of a gold processing plant in Western Australia.
A new sulphide concentrator has been built at the Wiluna gold mine as part of a major expansion project.   (Supplied: Wiluna Mining Corporation)

WMC’s chief financial officer Anthony Rechichi told the ABC on November 3 the gold miner had yet to discuss the prospect of repaying JobKeeper cash.

“We haven’t discussed it at a senior level or a board level yet, but obviously now that other companies are making those decisions, we’ll have the discussion,” he said.

Mr Rechichi said the labour crisis in WA’s booming mining sector continues to drive up costs with shortages of key personnel.

“I think the biggest issue for our assessment of whether we think it’s appropriate or not to make that payment back is to really understand how long an environment are we going to be exposed to where we’ve got this pinch on people and the availability of equipment and resources,” he said.

This week, WMC emerged from a trading halt to announce a $53 million capital raising through the issue of new shares to investors.

Nickel miner paid $2m

Another case study is Panoramic Resources, which suspended operations at its Savannah mine in WA’s East Kimberley in April 2020. 

Intrastate travel restrictions introduced during the pandemic to stop the spread into remote Aboriginal communities made it impossible to transport personnel and equipment to the mine site.

Full-scale mining resumed in July this year and the first shipment of concentrate is scheduled for December.

Two men wearing high-vis clothing and hard hats on a mine site holding nickel concentrate.
Maintenance manager Craig Walker and processing manager Clint Holland with nickel-copper-cobalt concentrate produced at the Savannah mine.(Supplied: Panoramic Resources)

During the shutdown period, Panoramic signed up 122 employees for JobKeeper in the 2019-20 financial year and 113 employees last financial year.

In comparison, Sheffield Resources — the developers of the $392 million Thunderbox mineral sands project, 60 kilometres west of Derby — received just $72,000 under the scheme with only eight employees on JobKeeper. 

One of Australia’s biggest mining contractors MACA was paid $885,000 after signing up 99 workers.

Perth-based Mineral Commodities, which is developing a new graphite mine at Munglinup on WA’s south coast, was paid $331,500 with 17 workers on the scheme.

Similarly, Caravel Minerals, which is behind plans for a new $481 million copper mine near Wongon Hills in the WA Wheatbelt, was paid a total of $78,000 with six workers registered. 

A mining truck inside an open cut mine.
A haul truck working inside the Super Pit and the Kalgoorlie-Boulder townsite in the background shows how close the mine is to residential areas.  (ABC Goldfields: Jarrod Lucas)

‘We didn’t need it’

The bulk of WA’s miners not only survived but thrived during the pandemic, particularly those working in iron ore and gold.  

The owner of Kalgoorlie’s Super Pit gold mine, Northern Star Resources, was asked by a shareholder at its annual general meeting last week why the company had not tapped into the “widely rorted” jobs scheme. 

The following exchange was first reported by 

“Please explain why we didn’t get in on the rort to maximise returns to shareholders and did we explore applying?” activist shareholder Stephen Mayne asked.

Northern Star chairman Michael Chaney said the question did not deserve a response.

“We didn’t apply because we didn’t need it,” he said, to applause from the audience.

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