BHP Billiton says changes to workplace laws are making it hard for management and unions to resolve disputes.

There were now more claims that could be put on the table beyond just benefits and pay, chief executive Marius Kloppers said.

BHP – one of SA’s biggest employers through the Olympic Dam project – is embroiled in a dispute with its Queensland coal miners.

Talks remain deadlocked after 15 months on issues such as safety and the dispute is heading towards strikes and lockouts from this weekend.

Workers already have gone on strike this week at BHP’s Port Kembla coal terminal in NSW where negotiations broke down.

Speaking as BHP yesterday reported a $US9.9 billion half-year profit, down 5.5 per cent, Mr Kloppers joined other high-profile business leaders, such as Qantas chief Alan Joyce, in criticising the Federal Government’s workplace reforms.

“The changes in law, and with things like prohibited content and so on changing, the number of issues that can be put on the table, which don’t only govern benefits and pay but extend to all manner of other things, it just makes it more difficult,” Mr Kloppers said.

“It makes it less likely that people reach an agreement in a given time frame.”

The company and the unions both wanted to resolve talks “with the minimum amount of fuss”.

“But it is a little more difficult than it has been in the past, because the number of issues on the table, as basically regulated by the governing law, has expanded,” he said.

In the coal negotiations, the principle arguments are over who has responsibility for monitoring safe work practices at a group of mines run as a joint venture with Japan’s Mitsubishi and known as BMA.

The union wants its members to be in charge but the company wants to appoint its own safety supervisors who are not necessarily under the union agreement.

The company was trying “to take mine safety out of the pit and into the office”, Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union district president Stephen Smyth said.

However, mine head Steve Dumble said the unions were dressing up commercial issues as safety issues.

“Make no mistake, this is an industrial agenda and is about union benefits and union job security and not about safety,” Mr Dumble said.

The unions also want workers on 12-hour shifts to get three breaks rather than the present two, preferential selection of unionised workers for training opportunities, extension of conditions to workers employed by outside companies on contract work and are arguing about representation rights in shopfloor disputes with individual workers.

There also are undercurrents of resentment in the community over fly-in fly-out workers.

A spokesman for Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten said there were avenues for BHP to comment on the reforms which were introduced by Prime Minister Julia Gillard when she held the industrial portfolio.

“As BHP would be aware, the Government has commissioned an independent, expert review into the operation of the Fair Work Act,” the spokesman said.

“If Mr Kloppers or anyone has concerns about the operation of the Fair Work system they should make a submission to the review.”

Despite the industrial problems, Mr Kloppers said Australia was the “gold standard” in the world’s economic landscape and was highly regarded as a place to invest.

The company was untroubled by short-term politics, such as the Labor Party leadership tensions.

“What is important to us is that we don’t get discontinuities like we nearly had with the (mining super profits tax) two years ago,” he said.

“And we must continue to ensure that we have got a long-term, flexible, productive, highly innovative, technologically advanced workforce.”

“I would say that the latter is probably something which occupies a significant share of mind at the moment.

“What happens with which party when, tomorrow and so on and so on, really, it probably occupies a lower share of mind than the average person would think.”

While BHP’s profit was below market expectations, Mr Kloppers said BHP was cautiously optimistic about the global recovery and especially the long-term demand for commodities.

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