December 2016

Challenges in obtaining a social licence to mine

  • By L Abrahamsson, Professor; J Lööw, Doctoral student; M Nygren, Doctoral student; and E Segerstedt, Doctoral student; Division of Human Work Science, Luleå University of Technology

Social aspects related to mining such as inclusive recruitment, participation in community planning and creating safe workplaces can affect a company’s social licence to mine

Traditionally in mining, the social licence to mine, and indeed social sustainable development in general, has been concerned with the mining company proving their potential to bring positive effects to the local community. It has been a process of building trust with the community through dialogue and outreach activities. However, this does not necessarily reflect the actual situation when it comes to sustainable development in these particular contexts. In this article, we highlight the social aspects of sustainable development in both the mining industry and the surrounding communities, including the new challenges that have emerged and the need for a mutual process in the common ambition of creating social sustainability. Consequently, we focus on a broader range of aspects of socially sustainable development – diversity, work conditions and gender – which are all important parts of the challenges that mining activities meet.


Diversity is a key word for social sustainability. To improve life conditions in a community, the community must make sure that its citizens can live their lives in a variety of ways (ie that there is diversity). In this article, we interpret diversity as a variety of lifestyles that a person can lead in a community influenced by the mining industry. Two positive signs of enabled diversity is thus ethnic and social diversity.

However, sometimes there are contradictory aspects. For example, social trends such as strong community identity can be seen as a good ground for cohesion that contributes to higher satisfaction within the community, but may also be associated with a lifestyle that is not inclusive. Scott, Carrington and McIntosh (2012) argue that strong community cohesion might lead to the perception of indigenous people and ‘fly-in, fly-out’  (FIFO) workers as ‘the other’.

Concerning demographics, Petkova-Timmer et al (2009) have found that more men than women live in Australian mining communities and that it is common for young women to leave such communities. In Sweden, similar tendencies have been found (Rauhut and Littke, 2016). While it is hard to distinguish between effects related to the mining industry and general demographic effects, it remains a relevant issue for mining companies.

Attractive housing opportunities and the built environment are important material factors for social sustainability. During an active period, the mining industry will need new workers, resulting in a need for new permanent or temporary housing solutions. A thoughtful strategy for new housing and the built environment can be a key aspect of sustainable development for immigration built on diversity (Johansson et al, 2016). Still, it is unclear what responsibilities mining companies might share with the community and government, though some mining companies are trying to fill the gaps in regional planning and service delivery where government activity is weak and community capacity is low (Morrison, Wilson and Bell, 2012).

When a new mine is established, the migration and influx of outsiders both come with different types of consequences. If handled in a cautious way that recognises potential social issues, this influx can certainly increase the diversity in the local community. An expanding community can also result in thriving businesses and better healthcare services. However, rapid changes in demographics can also put pressures on the local community. Lapalme (2003) notes that if newcomers become isolated, it may lead to an increased risk of prostitution, sexually transmitted diseases, alcoholism and violence. The literature on the matter has two apparent orientations. On the one hand, FIFO may smooth the change process for the community in the beginning and hopefully result in immigration. On the other hand, FIFO workers do not pay taxes in the local community but still use the community’s services and infrastructure. A common attitude among FIFO workers is to not see the local community as their own but rather as a place to work, sleep and then leave, which might be problematic in the long run. The main reason why this type of work is implemented is the lack of necessary skills and knowledge in the local community (Azapagic, 2004). Risks associated with FIFO, as well as satisfaction with life in a local community among FIFO workers and locals, thus seems to be an issue for the community and the mining company (Abrahamsson et al, 2014).

An emerging issue relates to the treatment of indigenous people when a mine site is developed. According to Lapalme (2003), the issue requires sensitivity to preserving indigenous people’s traditions, spirituality, hunting ground, etc to achieve sustainable development. Furthermore, the involvement of indigenous communities should be encouraged, and an adequate proportion of the workforce should come from the indigenous population.

Work conditions

Historically, the focus regarding work conditions in mining has mainly been on factors to ensure that mine workers are not injured on the job, such as individuals’ health, occupational medicine, basic and practical workplace safety and the physical work environment. However, the interest in organisational and sociotechnical perspectives is growing. Issues associated with how to create good physical and psychosocial environments that positively influence productivity, innovation and employee well-being and learning are central.

In research, the importance of taking a broad perspective on occupational health and safety (OHS) to create sustainable work environments is clear. Indeed, it seems obvious that not only human error, but the interaction between technical, organisational, psychological, environmental and physical factors cause work-related illness (Cliff, 2012). There is also a general agreement that human factors and ergonomics need to be included in the technological development aspects of sustainable development.

As a result, work conditions, in conjunction with automation development and remote operation centres, need special attention. Such new work conditions include cleaner underground production as well as better personal protection and technical safeguards, but this new work environment has also led to new problems, such as computerised work tasks that run the risk of creating repetitive, monotonous work for miners (Li et al, 2011). It must be ensured that the positive aspects of these developments are utilised.

The aforementioned issues of FIFO workers are also present in the discussion on work conditions. While this type of outsourcing and contracting offers volume flexibility and expertise, it makes recruitment and development of the whole of the mining workforce complex, not least in regards to safety training and organisational changes (eg the implementation of lean production/mining and the development of a learning organisation). Over the last decades, the use of extended work days (regular shift lengths of ten or 12 hours per day while still maintaining a 40-hour work week) has also become more common and is a popular solution among FIFO and contractor workers. Such shifts can increase the number of accidents and lead to other OHS problems, including psychosocial issues (Dembe et al, 2005). Extensive use of night shifts can even potentially create seclusion from the local community.

Matters of education, on-the-job training and learning organisations have become more common as well. One particular focus is the future labour and skill supply. Modern mines are so technically advanced that the proportion of unskilled labour will decrease significantly or disappear. Some mining companies fear difficulties recruiting young people. A related problem is the tendency for women and youth to move away from mining communities. Thus, a precondition for being able to recruit the right workforce is that the mining industry can offer interesting and safe work that attracts people of all ages – both women and men. An organisation that supports teamwork, communication and learning at work makes the jobs more interesting and stimulating for the mining workers and can contribute to enhanced innovation and competitiveness in the mining industry. This notion of creating an attractive mine (Lööw, Johansson and Andersson, 2016) is an important part of socially sustainable development and will likely make it easier to get a social licence to mine.


As mines become increasingly characterised by complex technology, a challenge will be to recruit skilled labour and expertise to mines that are often located far away from larger cities. Often, it is difficult to attract young people and women to jobs in the male-dominated mining sector.

The Swedish strategic research and innovation agenda for the mining industry (Andersson et al, 2013) identifies important links between gender equality, efficient use of resources, attractiveness of the workplace, innovation and sustainable growth. For several years, however, the most obvious gender issue in the Swedish mining industry has been to attract women to and retain them in its traditionally male-dominated workplaces. In the major mining companies, 85-95 per cent of the miners are still men, and widening the perspective to include innovation, research and development does not significantly change this picture. In response, research on women in mining has grown, focusing on why and how women are excluded from the mining industry. This includes research on the problems of active exclusion, ideological opposition and sex discrimination and harassment against women miners.

A related issue is men and masculinity in mining. Today, there is still not only an overt visibility of men in the mining sector, but also a conflation of men with competence and expertise that is taken for granted. Structures and technologies are supposed to be gender-neutral, but many actually favour men (Lahiri-Dutt, 2011; Knobblock, 2013). Abrahamsson and Johansson (2006) found that the identity and symbolic aspects of work lag behind the structural changes at the workplace, such as new technology and new qualification demands. This miner masculinity/identity functions not only as a gatekeeper towards women and hinders gender equality interventions, but it can also create problems for the implementation of safety procedures, new technologies, new organisational forms and environmental awareness as well as barriers for a diversity of lifestyles for men (Eveline and Booth, 2002; Abrahamsson and Somerville, 2007).

Swedish mining companies LKAB and Boliden can both be used as examples of companies that are attempting to rectify this situation. During the last few years, they have implemented several ambitious gender initiatives, both within the companies and in collaboration with local communities (eg wage-mapping systems, women’s networks and gender-aware trainee and recruitment efforts for executives and technology experts). However, despite a consensus on the value of gender equality and in spite of the ambitious initiatives and some progress in recent years, it has been hard for mining companies to break the industry’s male-oriented gender patterns (Andersson et al, 2013). Moreover, the number of women has always risen during good times and fallen during recessions. Today, the mining industry faces severe challenges due to falling prices, leading to difficulties in achieving profitability. It is yet to be seen what this will entail when it comes to the number of women in the aforementioned companies.


Diversity of lifestyles, work conditions and gender issues are aspects of socially sustainable development in mining communities where norms on a local community and company level interact. To obtain a social license to mine, companies and local mining communities should raise awareness of the social aspects related to mining, such as inclusive recruitment, participation in community planning, addressing FIFO policy, preventing work-related illness, organising on-the-job training and promoting inclusive gender norms. Viewing social license as a process on both community and company levels, as well as the interaction between those levels, should contribute to socially sustainable development.

Challenges for diversity in mining communities include solving housing issues and balancing recruitment of FIFO workers, enabling indigenous people to have access to both traditions and mining work, and addressing demographical issues in remote communities where mines are often situated. When it comes to work conditions, one of the main challenges is considering the combination of the organisational, technical and psychological factors and planning schedule to avoid the risks that come with working long shifts. As for gender issues in mining communities and companies, there is a challenge in combining structural changes that enable equal participation in mining work with symbolic actions addressing mining identity. With all of these challenges come possibilities to reach higher community satisfaction in mining communities and more socially sustainable development in the mining sector.


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Image by Jean Baptiste via Creative Commons

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