There have likely been breaches to the WA Government’s vaccine mandate for workers on mine sites due to incorrect information provided to mining companies about whether Traditional Owners had to adhere to it.

Last week the National Indigenous Times revealed the Chamber of Minerals and Energy WA had been advising its members that Traditional Owners who were on site carrying out heritage surveys were not subject to the mandate and therefore did not have to be vaccinated to go on site.

The WA Health Department has since confirmed with the National Indigenous Times that Traditional Owners carrying out heritage work on mine sites do fall under the mandate.

A department spokesperson confirmed while Traditional owners visiting or travelling across Country were not subject to the mandate.

“If they are a worker at a rural or remote resources industry site, they are required to be vaccinated,” he said.

Traditional Owners are usually paid for the work they carry out as part of heritage reports.

Those covered by the mandate were required to have had their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccination by December 1.

Wintawari Guruma Aboriginal Corporation’s non member Director, Tony Bevan said many mining companies were following the advice that came in an email from the Chamber on December 1 and it was “highly likely” Traditional Owners who had not had their first COVID-19 vaccine shot had been on mine sites since the start of the month.

Mr Bevan said he had previously questioned the matter with Rio Tinto and been informed that it was the company’s understanding that the Department of Health had given the Chamber of Minerals and Energy “further clarification” on the matter, which led them to update their company position in line with the CME’s position that Traditional Owners were exempt. 

CME WA is now being urged to properly inform its members of their responsibilities around ensuring Traditional Owners working on mine sites.

Mr Bevan said the Health Department’s clarification of the issues shows that the Chamber was ‘incorrect’ in its interpretation of the Directions.

“It’s incumbent upon the CME to clear up any misunderstandings of their members and clarify the situation.”

Individuals who breach the State Government Directions can be fined up to $20,000 and companies up to $100,000.

Kimberley Land Council CEO Tyronne Garstone said he was relieved to know Traditional Owners were subject to the mandate and Aboriginal communities would therefore have a level of protection.

He had been concerned not enforcing the mandate on Traditional Owners would have put already vulnerable communities at further risk and to do so would have been putting efficiency and profits before health.

“It has definitely been confusing for Tradition Owners,” he said.

CME WA has been contacted but has declined to comment on the matter.

By Aleisha Orr