The mining sector has hit back at a new report that suggests FIFO workforces are damaging regional towns.
The Standing Committee on Regional Australia spent almost 18 months examining how FIFO and DIDO affected workers, their families and regional communities, with one regional mayor describing the practice as “the cancer of the bush”.
Independent MP Tony Windsor, who chaired the committee, wrote in the report's foreword that the transient workforce was often damaging to local mining communities.
“….the work practice is eroding the liveability of some regional communities to such an extent that it is increasingly removing the choice to ‘live-in’ rather than simply ‘cash-in,” Windsor wrote.
The report found that an influx of temporary workers was creating housing shortages, driving up prices, and straining public services.
Windsor wrote a policy mix was needed to ensure FIFO did not lead to “"a hollowing out of established regional towns, particularly those inland".
“..for operational positions located near existing regional communities, every effort should be made to make FIFO/DIDO the exception rather than the rule," he wrote.
There are also concerns for the health and welfare of workers’ given the long hours of remote work and the time spent away from family.
The report made 21 recommendations to government and 14 to industry including better resourcing communities under pressure from large FIFO and DIDO workforces and removing tax benefits for companies using a transient workforces.
The industry reacts
Minerals Council of Australia chief executive Mitch Hooke said the report "should be treated with a deal of scepticism", and vowed to oppose any changes to the tax treatment of FIFO workers.
"Mining and FIFO is not hollowing out the regions in which it operates. It is boosting incomes, attracting families and reducing unemployment," he said.
Australian Mines and Metals Association chief executive Steve Knott said the transient workforce used by many mining companies was often driven by employee lifestyle choices.
"Building a highly skilled, mobile workforce that can move with shifting industry demands should be the top priority, not labelling FIFO a 'cancer' and further taxing the resource industry and its workforce," Knott said.
While mining companies themselves also weighed in on the debate.
Anglo American Australia chairman Graham Bradley said FIFO had been "absolutely essential" in Australia due to a skills shortage.
"I think it's also significant that it has helped many tradesmen and people with technical skills who have been laid off in the manufacturing industries to quickly re-enter the workforce without dislocating their families, in places like the Hunter Valley, Wollongong, and other manufacturing sectors," Bradley said.
Chamber of Minerals and Energy of WA chief executive Reg Howard-Smith said some of the recommendations could increase the cost of doing business.
“Unfortunately we are becoming a less attractive place to develop resources projects when compared with global resource rich nations and investment may be driven to other, lower cost, regions because of additional layers of taxation and charges which are continuing to drive up cost for doing business,” he said.
“Attraction and retention of employees would be severely impacted if companies attempted to force residential employment on their employees.”
Howard-Smith said FIFO helped keep the labour market competitive.
“FIFO and residential employment are complementary, not supplementary approaches in a total workforce management package,” he said
West Australian Premier Colin Barnett said: "Western Australians are getting a little tired of wise men from Canberra telling us (how) to live our lives, how our working arrangements should be."
Barnett said FIFO would always be a part of the WA workforce because there would always be mines in isolated locations.
Australia’s first online mining community, Mining Family Matters, said while it was important to shine the light on key issues, but cautioned the impact it could have on FIFO workers.
“We are very keen to ensure that FIFO/DIDO workers aren’t further vilified as part of this debate – or made to feel bad for the work choices they have made for themselves and their families,” they said in a statement.
While the debate continues, policy makers are now under pressure from regional communities to implement the recommendations in the report.
The Pilbara Regional Council wants changes to the Australian taxation zone rebate to benefit permanent residents only.
The PRC's chairwoman, Lynne Craigie, says the council is looking for a more hands-on approach to the report.
"What we want is we want to see our towns grow, we want to see our population enhanced so it becomes a liveable community for everyone," she said.
"Otherwise we are just having FIFO workers pick the cream out of our communities."
Cloncurry Mayor Andrew Daniels said the federal government must get involved in order to help communities.
"Governments have to take a stance and a policy towards mining companies, give them the incentive, try and get people to stay in these country areas, whether it be through tax incentives or living away from the east coast allowance or something … we've got to find some mutual ground there where people want to be out here," he said.
Muswellbrook Mayor Martin Rush wants both the federal and state government to work together in creating good policy.
"The problem remains the inability of those two governments – the O'Farrell government and the Gillard government – to actually deliver or anything they say."
"The parliamentary inquiry had before it sufficient evidence that it could have made more specific, more immediate recommendations for fixes with the problem in skilling regional Australia, in so far as the resources industry is concerned," he said.
"Instead, they've really made the recommendation to do more work in that area."
The report has called for more comprehensive research into the impact of FIFO/DIDO on both regional communities and FIFO/DIDO workers, families and children to be conducted.
The committee also recommends that the Commonwealth develop a best-practice guide for employers with significant non-resident workforces aimed at assisting them to develop their own family support programs.
- Review of funding allocations for FIFO communities so that funding is based on both residents and service populations.
- Provide funding for the Australian Bureau of Statistics to develop a method to measure the extent of FIFO practices in the resources sector and the service populations of mining communities.
- Fund comprehensive research to determine the economic impact on the demand for and consumption of local government services and infrastructure from FIFO workforces.
- Commission a study of the impact of non-resident workers in regional resource towns on the provision of medical services and as a result of this study develop a health policy response that supports the sustainability of regional medical services.
- Identify areas where local governments affected by FIFO would benefit from skills training programs to meet the needs of councillors and senior staff in local government.
- Have the National Housing Supply Council to urgently develop and implement a strategy to address the supply of affordable housing in resource communities and report to the House of Representatives by June 27 on the progress of this strategy.
- Commission a comprehensive study into the health effects of FIFO and lifestyle factors and as a result of this research develop a comprehensive health policy response.
- Develop a best practice guide for employers with significant non-resident workforces.
- Commission research on the effect on children and family relationships of having a long-term FIFO parent.
- Commission research into the economic and social impacts of establishing regional centres as fly-in fly-out source communities.
- Review the Fringe Benefits Tax Assessment Act 1986 to limit a range of FIFO incentives.
- Review the Zone Tax Offset arrangements to ensure that they are only claimable by permanent residents of a zone or special area.
- Charge the Productivity Commission with investigating a more appropriate form of governance for remote Australia that is flexible and responsive.
- Establish a dedicated secretariat, within an existing government department and based on the Province of Alberta Oil Sands Sustainable Development Secretariat, with responsibility for consulting with state governments and the resources industry.
- Develop strategies and targets for achieving fair access to health services for people living in regional and remote areas recognising the use of FIFO health services, providing for appropriate funding and infrastructure support.
- Require each Regional Development Australia committee to have a health focus in its strategic plan, specifically focussing on long-term workforce and infrastructure planning and the role that FIFO medical practitioners will play in future service delivery.
- Develop initiatives to encourage the provision of tertiary education providers to resource communities.
Image: The Australian, WA Today