Don’t fear the FIFOs

It's not difficult to find stories blaming fly-in fly-out workers for a rise in crime and disorder in mining communities. 
But according to research by Professor John Scott from the University of New England, figuring out whether these reports correspond with reality is much trickier. 
After spending time interviewing locals in regional Western Australia Scott and Kerry Carrington from Queensland University of Technology have come to unusual conclusions about the impact of FIFO workers. 
According to Scott and Carrington while fear of crime is on the rise in these rapidly expanding communities, quite often actual crime is not. 
"Crime isn't necessarily going up in mining communities despite there being a sense that the crime rate is increasing," Scott told Australian Mining.
 

How it got started 

Scott said his FIFO study started after he noticed certain parallels between reports on crime in agricultural communities and mining towns. 
"The typical story you get on crime in agricultural regions is that it's largely an Aboriginal problem," he said. 
"Statistically we know this isn't the case. Violence is a community-wide issue and by no means confined to one particular group." 
Scott told Australian Mining when researchers picked mining towns in WA with small indigenous populations crime was instead projected onto the FIFO workforce. 
"Instead of blaming the Indigenous community for crime the locals blamed the FIFOs," he explained. 
In this way Scott said crime was most often viewed in the public's mind as the fault of the outsider population. 
Importantly Scott said research showed fear of crime, an issue outside crime itself, ballooned in communities that saw rapid development. 
"Surveys indicate social disorder and unwelcome individuals and groups are associated with crime, which presents as a breakdown of social cohesion, and a loosening of moral standards. 
"Studies have argued that people in rural towns are not actually fearful of crime itself, but are concerned with what they perceive as the threat to their rural idyll." 
 

Just the facts 

After setting up the background Scott said checking claims about FIFO workers against hard data was the key to determining their impact. 
And he said the data did not always suggest claims about FIFO workers were accurate. 
"There were wild rumours floating around, like 'one of them killed somebody'," he said. 
"None of this was backed by any evidence. 
"In fact, despite a rising population and a decrease in social integration, official crime rates in these areas have remained stable or even dropped." 
Scott said while there was no doubt there were real examples of FIFO workers causing havoc in the community the issue wasn't always as clear cut as many community members, and parts of the media, saw it. 
"We did get reports of conflict between local residents and FIFOs, but it wasn't always clear the FIFOs were responsible for having caused that conflict," he said. 
But despite the disconnect Scott said there were a number of legitimate concerns brought on by the increased FIFO workforce, including the strain on local infrastructure and services. 
But claims of rising crime, so often the focus of community members and the media, usually had little basis in fact. 
Scott said usually large increases in population were linked to an increase in crime and while it still remained a theory, there could be an explanation for why crime had not risen significantly in mining communities. 
"The reason I think it's not happening is because one of the things that occurs because of the expanding mining industry and FIFO work is a rise in the cost of living," he said. 
"Criminologists know that crime is linked to social disadvantage, but if your socially disadvantaged people can't afford to live in the region any more that may be a factor." 
 

The rumour mill 

Scott said rumour and gossip played an important role in the ideas and stories of crime, and some news coverage had also played a role in this construction. 
"The media isn't isolated from the good-guy bad-guy story telling," he said. 
Scott also said gossip played a role in segregating the community and creating the marginalised groups that were blamed for society's ills. 
On one level he said gossip acted as a vehicle for permanent residents to express "shock and horror" at the behaviour of groups that did not conform with the typical idea of community life. 
On another level he said previous study showed gossip often reduced intricate events into "stereotypical representations" which marred the complexities they deserved. 
"Gossip was a device to distinguish and amplify what were considered to be the worse qualities, real or imagined, among FIFO workers and generalise these to the group as a whole." 
Feeding into the ideas of gossip Scott said jealousy also played a part in stories about the FIFO workforce. 
"Resentment and conflict also occur because unskilled and semi-skilled miners often earn more money and occupy better and cheaper housing than professional workers," he said. 
Connecting all of these ideas is the fact that despite their size, regional communities and locals are highly organised and can be powerful storytellers. 
With links to the local media they're quite often more effective at telling their story than the mining companies and workers. 
What results is an unexpected power imbalance where the interests of sections of the community are heard louder than those of large companies. 
"There's this idea that communities are powerless in the fact of a lot of the change that's going on," Scott said. 
"To a certain extent what we're seeing isn't necessarily one group that has all the power and another that has nothing, we're seeing a bit of a contest going on." 
 

Life's good 

Some of Scott's findings, particularly on the role of gossip and jealousy, will prove to be provocative for community members. 
Nevertheless he's confident the data, surveys, and research backs him up. 
And beyond critiquing locals Scott's research tells an encouraging story about our mining communities. 
By highlighting the disconnect between claims about FIFO workers and the reality, he proves what many workers and locals already know. 
Life in mining towns is not as bad as it's often portrayed. 
Whether in Queensland or WA, these towns are not the disordered places often pictured in the media or public imagination. 
While there are serious issues hindering their development, they're often more tranquil than you'd expect. 

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