Rio Tinto CEO’s $12.86M payout after Juukan Gorge blast scandal

Two mining heavyweights have scored massive pay rises in the wake of one of the biggest scandals to hit their company.

Last year, Rio Tinto sparked widespread fury after the company destroyed the sacred Juukan Gorge caves in WA’s Pilbara region.

The mining giant’s decision to blast the 46,000-year-old Indigenous site to boost access to iron ore deposits was slammed by Labor senator Pat Dodson as one of the worst avoidable disasters “that has ever happened in our country” during a parliamentary inquiry into the debacle.

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But yesterday, Rio Tinto’s annual report revealed that two executives had pocketed an eye-watering payout in spite of the global condemnation and an investor revolt that followed the Juukan gorge catastrophe.

According to the document, Michael L’Estrange, who fronted the company’s own investigation into the fail, picked up an extra 46 per cent in addition to his regular annual director fees.

It means that in 2020, he took home $A227,000 in director fees.

Meanwhile, former CEO Jean-Sebastien Jacques, who stepped down in January after the board found him to be “partially responsible” for the destruction, was also handed a 20 per cent pay rise, collecting $12.86 million – a huge jump from his $A10.68m pay in 2019, although log-term bonuses were deducted.

Mr Jacques left the company “by mutual agreement” with the Rio Tinto board following the scandal, and iron ore boss Chris Salisbury and group executive for corporate relations Simone Niven also departed in late December.


The release of the report caused mass outrage and made global headlines, with CNN covering the saga with the scathing headline “Rio Tinto blew up a sacred site in Australia. The CEO left but still got a huge payout”.

Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility strategy lead James Fitzgerald also weighed in, telling the Financial Times the payout was another blow for Indigenous communities.

“The decision to destroy the Juukan Gorge caves was morally repugnant and financially stupid. It has already cost the company millions, and the true cost won’t be known for years to come,” Mr Fitzgerald said.

“The payout casts doubt over Rio Tinto’s various expressions of sorrow and regret.”


Rio Tinto justified the executive pay in the report, writing that “the board fully recognised the gravity of the destruction at Juukan Gorge but was mindful that the three executives did not deliberately cause the events to happen, they did not do anything unlawful, nor did they engage in fraudulent or dishonest behaviour or wilfully neglect their duties.”

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It explained the company factored in “the loss of employment for the three individuals, against the considerable achievements of those executives over many years”, and that “in this context, the loss of employment was considered the greater sanction”.

Meanwhile, the company acknowledged the Juukan Gorge decision “irreparably damaged” an ancient site sacred to Indigenous people.

New CEO Jakob Stausholm said the company was committed to make amends.

“Our destruction of the 46,000-year-old rock shelters at Juukan Gorge in Western Australia was a breach of that leadership and our values,” Mr Stausholm said.

“We are working hard to heal and rebuild our relationships, credibility and reputation, and I know this will take time and effort.”

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