Tony Windsor
Fighting FIFO, the cancer of the bush

During the last parliament, I met a bloke whose employer of 25 years told him that in order to keep his job near Karratha in Western Australia, where he had lived with his family for many years – where his home was, where his children are educated – he would have to relocate 1500 kilometres away. Not to work at a different workplace, but to be transported back to the place where he already worked. His job wasn’t changing, it was the industrial climate under which he was employed.

His was one of many cases heard by the Standing Committee on Regional Australia across the nation. This ridiculous scenario is taking place in some parts of the country as companies are switching to exclusively fly-in fly-out (FIFO) workforces, meaning that local workers can only be employed if they move away and fly in with everyone else. 

FIFO employment developed in Western Australia as a means of obtaining workers for remote area mining development, particularly where the mineral resource was discovered in an area where there were no existing communities. Rather than relocating the employee and their family to a town somewhere near the worksite, every week the employee is flown in to the worksite from wherever they live to work for a number of days, and then flown back to their home town for a number of days of rest.

As chairman of the committee, I delivered a report on the use of FIFO practices in regional Australia. That report highlighted the extraordinary potential consequences on individual workers, their families and the communities where they live. The implications for regional communities, mining and otherwise, are ominous.

More recently, both Labor and Liberal National governments in Queensland have endorsed the principle of allowing mining companies to have 100 per cent compulsory FIFO, even when there are skilled regional workers and their families living nearby. Workers in the long-time Central Queensland mining town of Moranbah who want to work in the nearby BHP mines of Caval Ridge and Daunia will need to fly in to work.

A recent report cited an example of a local resident miner who flies to Brisbane from Moranbah to catch a FIFO plane back to Moranbah to go to work a short distance out of town. He is required to reside in a mining camp even though his own home is close by, and if for some reason he were to spend a night at home with a sick child, for example, his employment would be in jeopardy. At the completion of his roster, he returns to Brisbane on the FIFO plane and then flies back to Moranbah so he can spend time with his family.

I think the most profound comment that the committee heard was from the mayor of Kalgoorlie, a very proud mining community whose existence is based on the mining developments in the area. He said he believed the FIFO workplace practice to be the “cancer of the bush”, eating away at the integrity of his community. This was a view that was embraced by other mining towns, such as Broken Hill in New South Wales and Moranbah and Mount Isa in Queensland.

There are some dangerous messages for country Australians in this issue, which regional leaders should be heeding.

A century ago and for many decades since, country people left the land and associated towns and villages to migrate to the cities to find work. This was on the basis that times had changed and economies of scale and new farming technologies on the land meant that people would need to relocate.

Now, with mining activity in the east, regional residents can see work opportunity in the country being filled by the migration of workers flying in from the cities, accommodated in camps and employed in extraordinary shift patterns that essentially removed any social engagements with nearby towns, other than some of the workers visiting prostitutes who were also flown in.

The tail wagging the dog on FIFO was the work camp concept where the workers not only fly in, they reside in self-contained mining camps on the outskirts of existing towns, having little meaningful positive interaction with locals. The contractual arrangements between the mining companies and the camp providers, and the fact that the viability of the camps depended on high resident ratios, mean the possibility of locals obtaining work or young people being trained or workers relocating and becoming real members of these communities faded away. Not only was the ground being mined, so were the towns and the existing residents.

As the mining companies have gained access to more populated areas, the debate has shifted. The committee received evidence that companies wanted to provide “choice” for the workforce, and that government had no role in company employment strategies. There was an abundance of evidence contradicting this argument, and the recent 100 per cent mandatory workplace arrangement in Queensland indicates little interest in regional towns and the opportunities these jobs could present. Aboriginal groups who were feted during the approvals process have been ignored in some areas as job opportunities disappear over the horizon.

Another extraordinary example of this disease was a proposal to establish a mining camp near Singleton in 2012. Located in the Hunter Valley in NSW, Singleton is a town where mining activity has occurred for generations. It is not without mining expertise nearby – it is 40 minutes from Newcastle, the largest coal port in the world. Why on earth would Singleton be a site for FIFO workers, when it is just down the road from one of our biggest cities and only two hours from Sydney? This is not remote Australia.

Some suggested that the Singleton exercise and FIFO generally was about breaking the influence of the union movement on the workforce, something I was a bit cynical about to start with. But as I analyse the motivation, I can understand why many hold this view. The capacity to reduce the influence of organised labour will obviously be strengthened greatly by 100 per cent compulsory FIFO. There are also tax incentives for treating workers this way.

Irrespective of the motivations, the impacts on regional towns were already becoming evident in recent years. In the minds of many mining companies, those who lived near these regional towns were disregarded and in many ways considered irritants to their projects. Still, the smart mining companies haven’t taken this pathway of domination, they have engaged with and employed and trained locals where possible.

If coastal communities in Queensland and NSW see themselves as being hubs to provide lifestyle for workers who fly inland to work as part of their future – and increasingly they do – why wouldn’t Brisbane or Sydney, where larger worker populations exist, move into that market also, with bigger, more cost-efficient aircraft?

Why wouldn’t the companies that have already done deals with camp providers do deals with big-city job providers to contract the workforce? Does the cancer become part of the feedlot mentality of the concentration of the Australian population on the coast in a few major cities, with all the infrastructure and social costs that are subsequently borne by the community?

Worryingly, this is just the beginning. The two growth points in terms of “FIFO hubs” in Queensland are Cairns and Brisbane, both of which have international airports. Those that suggest domestic FIFO will eventually give way to overseas FIFO may well have a point.

And if the concept works for mine workers, why not for other services providers?

Would anyone seriously think that fast-food operator McDonald’s would fly workers in from the coast to work in their Mount Isa stores? Well, the standing committee was told that was happening.

Various vocational training groups are adopting a similar business model. If it becomes the norm, it is not hard to visualise the hollowing out of many country towns.

At a time when there are many political and community concerns regarding mining and gas companies, with regard to climate change, groundwater sustainability and land management issues, it must surely be in the companies’ interest to include local workers in their workforce, rather than create an environment where there is resentment and division. Laws change because of public will. Laws that allow a free rein to these industries without regard for the local areas that provide their wealth can be altered and probably should be if the current arrogant attitude prevails.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 24, 2015 as "Fighting the cancer of the bush". Subscribe here.

Tony Windsor
is the former independent member for the federal seat of New England. He has held balance of power positions in both the NSW and federal parliaments.