Opinion: New look inside the shy world of mines workers

Last night’s showing of the new TV documentary series Flying Miners (ABC) presented an unusual and unique insight to the world of the FIFO mining employee.

The insight was not unique because the information presented was unique or special; quite the contrary, to a mining worker it was quite mundane.

I even felt bored with the start of the presentation because I thought I had seen it all before, in the glorious hues of real life!

How could watching images of, for example, a massive iron ore reclaimer on television ever match the glory of climbing to the top of one in the middle of the Pilbara?

But it didn’t take long before I realised that this program had an angle that we just don’t see in the media, and that is what makes this show unique.

Human interest- It drives the evening news and current affairs, but the inside world of FIFO has had little to no media exposure throughout the boom years. The life of the FIFO miner goes largely unreported.

We have plenty of hard news; about the boom and the current economic situation; about the junior to mid-tier explorers who strike it rich, about the successes of blue collar, working class men and women who take home the big bucks; about the about the workplace accidents, and the suicides…

Where is the normal life? What’s it like to be a FIFO worker?

Even within the lives of individual families, the FIFO worker has great difficulty in expressing to loved ones what they really do for work, and this program has taken a great step forward to assisting many hundreds of thousands of people to get a glimpse inside, as well as all the mining workers who have a chance to peek in from the outside too.

Having been a FIFO worker since 2006, I know how hard it can be when no-one at home really knows or understands what you do, and for that reason the bonds between mates who work in the industry are quite strong, even in circumstances when you have little else in common.

Sure, we can tell our partners and children what we do; we can show you pictures and try to describe what it’s like, how hard it is, how hot it was, but unlike other jobs in factories or offices where it’s very easy to get an idea of what the workplace is like, you simply can’t go out there unless you work there.

In very rare instances a spouse might go on a site visit, organised by the company, on an open day, or simply if the employee has enough pull (like being mates with the site manager).

That was the opportunity afforded to Jo, the wife of drilling contractor Matt Skeet.

The documentary exposed the hardship she felt about having her husband away, more than most workers due to his responsibilities as the boss of a drilling company, and from my uneducated point of view it looked a bit like a typical FIFO relationship that would wind up on the rocks.

So Skeet took his wife out to the Pilbara to see what happens at site, on a remote drill pad.

Without going too far into it, Jo got a new appreciation for the difficulties of remote work (she did a lot of commenting about how hot it was).

Where previously she had suspicions her husband was out, laughing it up over beers with the boys every night, staying in a serviced room with dinner cooked for him like clockwork (and FIFO WAGS, you all know what I’m talking about), Jo said she thought the boys definitely deserved a few beers after having to do that kind of work in such a hostile environment for 12 hours a day.

I got the impression that Jo may have started thinking that life at home alone, with a baby, in the air-conditioning, next to the swimming pool, with cable TV and the car and the shops and all the rest of it… might not be so bad after all.

Seeing a stranger, an outsider taken in to observe the operations of a drill rig, taken to see what the camp was like, made me realise something.

I laughed aloud when Jo, shown to her donga room for the first time, declared “oh, this isn’t so bad.”

It made me exclaim to my own partner, “That’s what we all say the first time!”

And then I realised that I was looking at the inside of a donga on television for the first time.

I’ve tried to take pictures that show how small the inside of a donga room can be, or how homely, or how boring, or how depressing, but seeing it on TV was strangely like seeing it fresh, for the first time again.

I’m sure there have been other documentaries about life in mining, but I haven’t seen them, and as a FIFO who did like the life, I think I would remember if I’d heard of one.

Flying Miners does present, in high definition, images that are rarely so candid or revealing of the work and the life. We are used to seeing these things on company promotions or induction videos, but not like this.

Perhaps the greatest value for those experienced in the mining industry is being able to see a close-up of how other jobs are done.

We know our own jobs intimately, and know a lot about the jobs of those around us, but there are so many different areas of work that a worker could only ever know about a fraction of them.

Unless you work in a gold smelter, chances are you’ve never seen gold being smelted, and especially not footage of a small operation where the refiner’s gloves catch on fire, or him doing the pour with his shirtsleeves rolled up and slag splashing all over his apron.

It goes to show that even though we know and live the life, we as workers know so little about other people’s jobs within the same industry. We all know that drillers think the world revolves around them, but where would mining be without smelter workers, or construction riggers, or (dare I say) engineers?

The best way to have empathy for others is to understand more about what they do. Whether you’re a FIFO worker, or a FIFO partner at home, the resident of a country town who hates FIFOs or even an anti-mining advocate, Flying Miners presents a truly fresh look inside the closed shop of mining life.

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