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FIFO workers in airport

The ugly truth about the FIFO way of life


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By Jackie Woods

Friday, 28 November 2014

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.”

FIFO/DIDO infographic

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.”

Let’s spread it around

Join the campaign to make the mining boom work for all Australians.


Working Life is a forum to share ideas and opinions about work and life, both light-hearted and serious. The opinions presented on Working Life are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent policies or views of the ACTU.


Creative Commons License
We believe in the free flow of information, and content on Working Life is available to be republished online or in print under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.


  1. Cassandra
    Friday, 28 November, 2014 at 12:11 pm · Reply

    The only logical reason that mining companies are demanding more FIFO workers rather than local ones is that the next move will be to say “Well if Australian workers don’t like or want FIFO jobs then we will have to recruit from overseas”.

    That of course will mean recruiting from low wage countries and under the so called “Free Trade ” agreements that Abbott is signing up for all over the place that will mean any attempt by Australia to have these workers paid under our Awards and conditions will be challenged in the international courts as “impediment to free trade”.

    Aided and abetted by State and Federal Liberal Governments who are still firmly wedged in the Industrial relations mindset of the 1800’s these mining companies are literally ripping the heart out of Australia and its democratic traditions. The union movement needs to marshal the power of public opinion to thwart these insidious attacks.

  2. Barry
    Friday, 5 December, 2014 at 11:02 am · Reply

    Hi Cassandra,
    What you say is probably true. Just today it has come out that John Holland will probably be sold to a Chinese company. They would probably want to bring in firstly their own executives and ultimately their own workers.

    However, this produces both a threat and an opportunity for unions.

    If unions make the error of attacking foreign workers then we will hand over the Australian working class to the Nazis who will be spruiking a lot of racist propaganda.

    If we instead educate our members in internationalism and anti-racism and work to organise those foreign workers then we can beat the multinational corporations at their own game. They internationalise capital, we can internationalise workers’ power.

    The line that workers should be hired on their ability not their post code is very powerful. It extends to also cover the worker’s country of origin as well.

  3. Philip John
    Friday, 5 December, 2014 at 11:57 am · Reply

    I have to say that I am pro FIFO even though I am a union member. I live in the best area in Australia, Cairns and the unemployment level here is woeful. I have previously worked in a FIFO construction role. I have to say that the roster was unbearable – 17 days on 4 days off. There are very limited opportunities here and the only real mining work is FIFO. Many friends of mine from this region are now working a 7 day on 7 day off FIFO roster and none of these people are complaining.
    If I had the opportunity for a 7/7 FIFO roster I would certainly do it.

  4. Margaret Galbraith
    Friday, 5 December, 2014 at 8:39 pm · Reply

    Please stop this unprofessional bitching about FIFO, they are not all the same. This really upsets me about the “Ugly truth about the FIFO” in the media all the time. My husband has worked as FIFO for 29½ years and we have two wonderful and successful children and a wonderful and happy marriage. We have no family here due to immigrating here from Scotland in 1982 so I have never had any back up apart from two lovely neighbours who are now in their 80s. We have done it alone and survived the FIFO life and it has worked for us. My husband works 12 hours shifts 2 weeks on a gas and oil field SWQ and 2 weeks home and loves his time with the family when he is home. We do a lot together and he feels he did see them more when they were younger than people who work all day every day. I know of many families who do the same job and have also done so for a number of years. It is not an easy job and some do it for the money which does help. He is not with one of the top paying companies but still earns a good wage. This type of work is not for the faint hearted or if your marriage is not strong or you are not a strong person. Yes, I miss him and hate each fortnight when he is due to leave but love when he comes home. A marriage and people will fail in their lives no matter what job they do but nothing ever goes in the press about them.

  5. Kathleen
    Monday, 8 December, 2014 at 2:28 pm · Reply

    Margaret, you are very lucky that your family has successfully survived and thrived with a FIFO husband. I’m glad you’ve had wonderful support from your neighbours, you are blessed. Not everyone has a happy story to tell and I’m glad to get another part of the picture from this union research. I don’t see it as ‘unprofessional bitching’, on the contrary it’s very important to me that people who are not getting a fair go or are having difficulties with an employment regime get their stories heard. If we don’t know that our co-workers are having a rough time, how can we lend support? Thanks to Working Life for vital coverage of this issue.

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