The ugly truth about the FIFO way of life
GRANTED, it’s not common these days to look back at the Bjelke-Petersen era with nostalgia.
But Joh had the right idea on one thing. When granting mining licenses in his state, he made it conditional on mining companies building towns and investing in local housing for workers and their families. Regional Queensland communities like Moranbah and Emerald and Dysart flourished with schools and sporting teams and mineworkers who came home to their families at the end of their shift.
Things couldn’t be more different today.
Fuelled by tax breaks and a desire to control the workforce, mining companies are shirking investment in local communities and often insisting workers live as far away as possible.
BHP Billiton’s two new Bowen Basin coal mines only hire workers who live in a radius of Brisbane or Cairns dictated by the company, even though there are towns and skilled mineworkers just down the road.
True story: if you live in the town of Moranbah 17 kilometres away from BHP’s Caval Ridge mine, or even 170 kilometres away in Mackay, you can’t apply for a job there. You have to live 1000 kilometres away.
Across Northern Australia, more and more workers are driving and flying long distances to work and living in temporary accommodation camps for the length of their roster.
Isolation takes its toll
It’s a choice that works for some people who want to live on the coast while they’re not at work. But there are big problems. Alarming evidence of the fallout from pressure and isolation is being heard in Western Australia’s parliamentary inquiry into FIFO suicides and across the resource states.
The Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union has conducted a wide-ranging survey of fly-in-fly-out and drive-in drive-out mining and construction across the top end. It finds a workforce plagued by job insecurity, fatigue, fear of speaking up on safety and work conditions, punishing rosters – and really bad food.
Ruthless cost-cutting is taking its toll as mining companies blame falling commodity prices to cut jobs and drive down contract wages.
Sixty-nine per cent of survey respondents said they were concerned about losing their current job. Numbers were even higher in the Bowen Basin where after months of job cuts nearly eight-in-ten coal miners fear they’ll lose their job.
Nearly half said their employer was very controlling, even when they were at their accommodation.
Workers describe camps as ‘‘like a prison’’ or ‘‘like a concentration camp’’. At many camps, workers aren’t allowed to leave without permission and movement around the camps is strictly controlled. Workers report not even being allowed to visit nearby family during their roster cycle.
Even worse, they say workers who speak up on conditions or safety are targeted: “Speak up and lose your job that’s how it works.”
Eight-in-ten commuting mineworkers said fatigue was a big issue at their workplace. Workers are making long journeys to get to work before heading straight into 12-hour shifts.
Some workers say they have no place to rest before getting on the road to go home, or that camps don’t offer the peace and quiet they need to recover between shifts.
Disturbingly, one-in-five drive-in drive-out workers spends more than five hours on the road each end of their roster, making the roads dangerous for everyone.
More than half of commuting mineworkers said their work conditions caused them personal or family stress. Workers with partners and dependent children were most affected.
Rosters allowing more personal and family time was the top thing commuting workers nominated for a better life.
As one worker said: “Difficult and unreasonable rosters are the biggest issue facing mine workers. Better rosters mean more time at home, less fatigue, depression and stress.”
Forced to live in camps during rosters of up to four weeks, many workers report poor access to medical facilities, phones and internet to keep in touch with family, and ‘hot-bedding’ where they rotate between rooms at the end of their roster or even the end of their shift.
Access to quality and variety of food is also a problem: “The food is the worst, I’m at the point of starving myself whilst there,” said one worker.
Lack of choice
FIFO work is sold by mining companies and their backers in government as being about choice.
But most commuting mineworkers had no choice at all about their working and living arrangements. Only a quarter of FIFO workers had any say over where they could live.
Meanwhile, once thriving communities are dying.
Lack of access to jobs in nearby mines and lack of opportunities for FIFO workers to move closer to work is sucking the life out of towns that once thrived.
Launching the research report in Brisbane this week, former independent Federal MP Tony Windsor said it confirmed what he’d found travelling across regional Australia enquiring into the impacts of FIFO two years ago.
He said companies’ appetite for FIFO appeared to be driven by hostility to mining communities and organised labour.
“If you dehumanise the workforce in any industry, you run the risk of removing the word community from the dictionary.”
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