Fly-in, fly-out workforces: who wins? who loses?

As Australia’s minerals and resources industry continues to flourish, the traditional workforce model is being revolutionised with disheartening effects for regional mining towns, who are left directionless in the wake of Fly-in, Fly-out (FIFO) workers.

Over the last decade mining companies have increasingly relied on a FIFO workforce to attract workers, isolating regional communities from their operations.

Earlier this month, Muswellbrook Mayor Martin Rush gave evidence to the ongoing Federal enquiry into the impact of FIFO work practises in Australia.

Councillor Rush has supported the views of vocal enquiry chair Tony Windsor, arguing that the FIFO workforce is damaging the Upper Hunter’s ability to compete with resource communities such as Perth in terms of drawing workers to the region.

FIFO work practices originated in 1950s Gulf of Mexico off-shore oil operations where miners were unable to live in or around the unfrequented in oil rigs. Establishing a non-permanent workforce drove costs down, with many other resource sectors following suit and adopting the practice.

Prior to FIFO, mining companies would invest in the development of resident populations in resource communities such as Mt Newman and Goldsworthy in Western Australia, developing infrastructure to accommodate miners and their families. However, in the last two decades, few such towns have been constructed.

Honorary Research Fellow at the Memorial University of Newfoundland, Keith Storey sees a number of factors contributing to the increasing preference for FIFO.

“Structural changes to the mining industry, higher costs of town construction and worker preferences for the opportunities offered by larger metropolitan areas have all contributed to making FIFO the preferred system in Western Australia for new mines in the last decade,” he said.

A government inquiry titled ‘Cancer of the Bush or Salvation of our Cities?’ was released on February 6 2013, giving anecdotal evidence from residents, workers, businesses and national and international mining companies on the extent to which FIFO influenced and changed their lives.

The inquiry found that, “from the Pilbara and Goldfields in the West to Central Queensland, the same story was reported: A decline in community image, identity and social cohesion, a marked divide between residents and FIFO workers, a decline in community safety and an overreaching need for companies to not completely rely on FIFO work practices.”

Despite this, ABC News reported on March 27, 2013 that a new Caval Ridge mine near Moranbah, north-west of Rockhampton will have a 100 per cent FIFO workforce, bypassing the opportunity for qualified, local residents to be employed, unless they were willing to fly back to their local area for work from Brisbane.

Isaac Regional Council Mayor Anne Baker said the Isaac region is “ground zero” for the impacts of FIFO on Queensland’s vital mining regions.

“Our vital and well established mining regions must be strong, healthy communities, not just ever expanding tarmacs for large mining companies,” she said.

“Incentive and choice for local family living should be at the heart of mining company operations in our region – not 100% forced FIFO. Local residents should not be steamrolled into moving away from their families and their community.”

A recent report from Griffith University found despite the resource industry being the first to achieve a 35-hour week, it now has the second longest hours of any industry, second only to road transport.

Engineering surveyor and FIFO worker for the past 5 years, Blake Darby says the long and tedious shifts amount to very little recreational time.

“Twelve hour days, combined with many employees working four weeks on and one week off can amount to nothing but work, eat, sleep,” he said.

According to a KPMG report released by the Minerals Council of Australia, the number of long distance mining commuters in Australia has more than doubled in the last 5 years.

At the time of the 2011 Census, mining was the fastest growing industry of employment, growing by 65 per cent within five years. Mining, and subsequently FIFO work practices, were growing at an average annual rate of 11 per cent, compared to the annual growth rate for total employment of 2.2 per cent.

The strong growth in mining over the last decade has significantly contributed to the changing worker profile of regional mining towns. Communities are increasingly finding themselves torn between wanting to support the major employer or maintaining the culture of their towns. Opinions remain divided on whether the mining boom is contributing positively to the prosperity of all those involved, with winners and losers emerging from both sides.

Throughout the government inquiry, an ‘us versus them’ mentality between workers and residents was reported. Residents of Karratha in Western Australia suggested that the demographic of young male workers was particularly problematic. “A community relies on families. A FIFO workforce is often a large influx of men … This can have law and order issues.”

Karratha school students also reported hostility towards FIFO workers: “Yes, I think there is hostility in the community towards them. It is like, we are the locals and they should not be here because it is our turf.”

On the other side of the story, the FIFO inquiry acknowledges that FIFO work practices have allowed many Australians the opportunity to access the wealth of the mining industry without uprooting their families and social networks.

Mr Darby, who currently works in Fairview in Queensland’s Surat Basin, says that FIFO meets his current needs as an unmarried man with no children.

“I did have the option to be a residential worker when I was in Port Headland, but decided that FIFO was for me because of the lifestyle it offers. Despite the smaller wage I receive, I get to see my friends and family more often,” Mr Darby said.

Despite the majority of FIFO workers being young and single males, the practice also appeals to families, allowing both partners to pursue fulfilling careers and giving children better access to a wider variety of education options.

The Director of Mining Family Matters, Alica Ranford, related the reasons for her family choosing FIFO work, in a submission to the government inquiry.

“We made the choice to do fly-in, fly-out, because the 12-hour shifts on the mine meant that my husband was gone before the children woke up and he got home after I put them to bed. So we decided to move back to Adelaide, where our support network is,” she said.

From a business perspective, a FIFO workforce is cost efficient and is often the only way people will willingly work in remote areas.

22 -year-old maintenance worker Kurt Farkas is currently stationed in Yandicoogina, Western Australia and feels his experience with FIFO and mining is largely positive.

“The money is the biggest incentive keeping me in mining but on top of that, the future career opportunities are good. I like the fact that you don’t spend money while your working and I also like having a big stint of work, then having a big block of time off to go on holidays or whatever I choose to do,” he said.

The Minerals Council of Australia reported that in most of the nine mining regions examined, incomes and educational attainment were higher than the Regional Australian average and unemployment rates lower than the Regional Australian average. The Bowen Basin region had an unemployment rate of 1.3 per cent in June 2011 compared to the Queensland rate of 5.5 per cent.

Because of the recognised economic and social benefits from hosting significant numbers of FIFO workers such as the growth of support industries, training opportunities and the diversification of local economies, competition to become ‘source’ communities is apparent throughout mining regions of Australia.

The City of Greater Geraldton is lobbying to become a source community, giving workers an option other than Perth. The Western Australian Government has a vision for Karratha and Port Headland to be built into cities, each with a population of 50 000.

Mayor of the City of Greater Geraldton, Ian Carpenter sees his town as a well-developed community that is prepared for a rapid increase in population.

“My experience is that local people generally support FIFO as everyone probably knows someone who is a FIFO or DIDO (dive-in drive-out) worker. Locals also believe there will be good economic benefits to the city.”

A Rio Tinto submission to the government inquiry suggested that the development of regional communities, as FIFO source communities creates a community feel among workers who are flying and working together, is minimising the perceived social ills that continue to be reported.

The government inquiry agrees that, “FIFO work practices are necessary and appropriate for operations in remote areas and the labour intensive construction phase of resource projects.” However, this highlights that FIFO “,should not be utilised as the primary work practice where it undermines the liveability of regional Australia.”

Honorary Research Fellow at the Memorial University of Newfoundland, Mr Storey says that with nearly two-thirds of the Western Australian population living in Perth, it is clear that the majority prefer metropolitan life. But mining also contributes to 70 per cent of the total Western Australian export income, most of which comes from the interior regions of the state.

However, with so much of the economic prosperity of Western Australia coming from the state’s regional mining towns, do the residents deserve a piece of the mining pie too?

According to Mr Darby local residents receive great benefits as a result of having mines in their towns.

“From what I have seen in my five years of work in FIFO, the big winners are the FIFO employees, in terms of making large amounts of money in an environment that doesn’t tempt them to spend. They are setting themselves up by investing. The businesses gain from having cashed up miners spending in their shops, and towns, which get a fair amount of money injected into the infrastructure by the BHP’s and Rio Tintos have seen new airports, stadiums, roads and schools be built with this money. Finally, everyone has seen property prices going through the roof, as a result of the high demand for accommodation, in places such as Port Headland,” he said.

The competition amongst regional towns to become FIFO ‘source’ communities supports the view that FIFO is good for these communities, while the vast array of anecdotal evidence in the government inquiry tells disturbing stories of the inability of regional cities to service what is known as a ‘shadow population’, one that lives in a town for short periods of time, without significantly contributing to community development.

While mining and FIFO have the ability to turn desolate and barren towns into booming regional hubs with visions for the future, there are concerns expressed throughout submissions from regional communities that this work practise would become such a norm. As such, future generations would not realise that the option of living in regional Australia is available to them.

As major employers, resource companies have a corporate and ethical responsibility to support communities that support them. In a more holistic way that is currently observed in many towns.

BY Dijana Damjanovic