The FIFO Debate

The subject of fly-in, fly-out (FIFO) mine workers has attracted a hefty amount of debate in recent years and Australian Mining takes a look into some of the issues being raised surrounding the employment structure.

The argument against FIFO workers centres on the lack of involvement the workers have in the mining communities and their behaviours both there and back in their home base.

They often work two solid weeks of 12-hour days on site, then flown back to a base for a week off.

Often FIFO work is deemed to be most appropriate for single people with no family responsibilities and no issues with having to be in different towns and cities for extended periods of time.

But sometimes it’s these young people who are most in need of a stable environment and find themselves with too much money and extended periods off, falling into alcohol and drugs and potentially ruining their promising lives.

It’s notoriously difficult to speak to mine workers on the ground, and media representatives can often paint a nicer picture than the reality.

Last year, the Hack program on the ABC’s youth station Triple J, spoke to Curtis (not his real name), a young man who had suffered first hand some of the issues that come with too much extended time off and too much money from working in the mines in the Pilbara.

He spoke of the “benders” he would go on during his week off spent in Perth.

“Absolutely party time, never thought about consequences, most of my week off I was awake the whole time, just one big bender, the only time I would catch up on sleep was when I went back to the mines.

“That one week back, most of the time your back, you stay there and party the whole time.”

What started as social, albeit binge drinking, became a fortnightly bender on party drugs in Western Australia’s capital.

“You know, you go out partying and everyone’s trying different things, and we always move onto harder stuff,” Curtis said.

Gervase Greene, from Rio Tinto’s iron ore, told Australian Mining sometimes FIFO work is “prone to a stereotype.”

“Are we suggesting the mining industry has issues regular communities don’t?

“Young men are probably prone to those issues, regardless of their employment; sometimes they make money and spend it on the wrong things.”

“A lot of FIFO workers aren’t even men, they’re women, and many FIFO’s are young people trying to save for a house and get ahead.”

Curtis inadvertently slid down the slippery slope from a young man using party drugs to a full-time dealer.

He ended up in huge debt to suppliers and gangs, and only turned his life around when his decisions started to affect his family too.

While Curtis admits his decline came off the back off a painful break-up, his story is not unusual in the FIFO community.

Many people are only willing to speak off the record about the issues surrounding FIFO work, something explored by Queensland University of Technology’s Professor Carrington in her violence research conducted in regional communities.

The study found violence was particularly high in areas with FIFO workers, but this was not exclusive to the mining industry, Carrington pointed out to Australian Mining.

“We cannot name names because of the nature of these communities, but we spoke to mayors, doctors, nurses,” she told Australian Mining.

“But if you say, ‘we went to this town and spoke to a nurse’, well she might be one of only a few and could therefore be identified.

Carrington’s study recommended more attention be paid to the “organised drunkenness” of the resource sector.

Rio Tinto’s FIFO employees account for about 40 per cent of its workforce and Greene told Australian Mining the employment of FIFO workers should be done in conjunction with other employment contracts.

“We do not see FIFO in isolation and don’t think others should.

“Its part of the balanced range of options we offer our workforce in the extremely competitive market for labour, and we have found that offering sweet options is much more successful in attracting and maintaining personnel.

“It’s about a range of options for people as their circumstances change.

“It’s not just young people doing FIFO like it used to be, it might be people who need to be closer to family back home, to be with children or ageing parents.”

“Historically, we would have lost these people from our workforce as their circumstances changes, but now we retain more people by providing flexible arrangement.”

David Flanagan, from Atlas Iron agreed that FIFO work should be one employment option for the mining industry, and its success depends on the individuals.

“I think it comes down to people.

“There’s always been people prepared to work hard and in exchange they get money and they do with it what they want,” he said.

“But most people do the right things with their money.

“I know both sides of politics are prepared to look at, getting access to accommodation is difficult, if more gets built you have somewhere to house them.

“Mining companies have an obligation to offer a range of employment options, but they also have an obligation to invest in communities.

It’s about finding a balance.”

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