From the burbs to the outback: It’s not all beer and skittles

A train returns to isolated Tom Price

Over the last two decades, Western Australia has seen a 400% increase in fly-in fly-out work. It has become so prevalent, that it’s likely you know someone who works a fly-in fly-out (FIFO) or drive-in drive-out (DIDO) job, if not someone in your own family.

As of May 2012, The Australian Bureau of Statistics recorded that the resource industry in Australia employs around 269,300 people. Although there is limited data about how many of  these people work FIFO, one private survey, with over 18,000 participants found that 47% of mining employees were working FIFO or DIDO practices.

While a lot of families and communities benefit from this kind of work, which incurs extensive travel to a workplace resulting in being away from home for periods of time, it can also  come at a cost.

In February, the Standing Committee on Regional Australia released its report on FIFO and DIDO work practices, Cancer of the Bush or Salvation of our Cities? Frontier Services, a  Uniting Church agency providing support and care in outback Australia, welcomed the report which found, among other things, that FIFO practices makes it tough for local communities  to thrive and can have serious affects on families with a member in a FIFO or DIDO situation.

In their submission to the report, Rosemary Young, national director of Frontier Services, wrote how it is more and more difficult to find staff for services in rural communities, as they can’t compete with the salary offered by the mining industry.

New to the Pilbara region, but no stranger to regional Australia, Rev John Dihm is the new Frontier Services patrol officer based out of WA’s Tom Price. John has a lot of great things to  say about the town, including how invested Rio Tinto is in community development.

“Rio Tinto do a lot around town,” he said. “They’re very good benefactors. They come in here and build communities, and they’re very passionate about that.

“The local community is great. This is a great town and a great life for young families.”

Most of the people who live in the town, which has a population of around 5,460, are somehow connected to the mining industry. But if you aren’t, it can be difficult to get by without the  income the industry’s employees receive.

John did raise a concern that house prices are huge; meaning for some who don’t have a mining income, buying a house just isn’t an option.

Patricia Thomson-Harry, Frontier Services WA regional manager, agrees.

“Its always been expensive, but the cost of housing is just phenomenal,” she said. “We’re looking at a modest two bedroom unit for a thousand dollars a week.”

Patricia now works out of Perth, but said she has lived in mining towns such as Tom Price and Karratha for significant periods of time in the past. Back in the 70s, Tom Price was a closed mining town, operated by Hamersley Iron, a company now owned by mining giant Rio Tinto. Patricia said that back then, people moved to mining towns for a life experience.

“People were wanting the adventure and hopefully saving a bit of money, but the focus wasn’t entirely on money,” she said.

These days, with the temptation of FIFO, families no longer have to relocate for work, and the job is no longer the same type of adventure in life.

“The focus on the dollar is far greater,” she said. “And the focus on acquisitions – we’ll just have now.

“That’s a societal trend, but it’s exacerbated.”

Kim Hewson and his wife Robeena live in Margaret River with their two primary school aged kids. Kim works on a FIFO basis with Lawson Gold, out in the WA goldfields. He works with explosives, one week on, one week off. Kim and Robeena both say that they are used to the situation now, after seven years working in the industry, but that at times it does get hard.

“It’s pretty hard to leave your family”, Kim said. “You get a little depressed on the first day, but then when you work you try not to think about it.”

On the plus side, Kim and Robeena both say that when Kim is home, he gets quality time with the kids that other parents might not be able to get.

“Most dads get home from work and they’re too tired,” Kim said. “When I am home for that week, I get quality time with the kids. And we can afford stuff too.”

The family wasn’t getting anywhere financially on Kim’s previous income as a postman. Now, he says, he’s earning triple the income meaning Robeena can spend more time with the kids  and they can live comfortably. Relationship wise, Kim says being away for a while has actually made them stronger.

“You miss the kids and your wife, so I appreciate them more,” he said. “I feel really good when I see her.”

But for some, it’s not always so great.

Depression, substance abuse, social isolation and fatigue related injury are all cited in the report as affecting many people who work in FIFO arrangements.

In his short time based in Tom Price, Rev John Dihm has already started making arrangements to set-up a peer support program, to help some of the workers who are struggling.

“A lot of the fellas up here are carrying baggage,” he said. “And the baggage will expose itself up here.”

Services are not just needed for the FIFO workers. Patricia Thomson-Harry feels that there are currently not enough services being injected into the town, and that local people have  suffered. The recent report into FIFO and DIDO backs this up in mining towns across Australia.

Health services are expensive, aged care is hard to find, small business is hard to maintain  and workers are hard to keep. In Tom Price, for example, Patricia explained that women can no longer give birth locally, having to fly to Perth away from family and friends to celebrate the new arrival, because the local hospital can’t accommodate them.

“This has gone backward. I think it’s quite obscene,” she said.

The report also found that it is tough to find health staff to move to regional towns, so many people in the medical industry become FIFO workers themselves, as the services are so  necessary.

FIFO doesn’t just affect service delivery, but with workers not investing themselves in the town, sport clubs, volunteer organisations and other community groups also suffer as it becomes difficult to recruit members. And with 85% of people working in the resource industry being male, female locals feel less at ease in towns which can become overrun with  transient men.

As Patricia mentioned, back in the 70s, many towns were operated by the mining company which it serviced. In the 80s, this started to diminish, with many companies relinquishing some of their responsibilities and handing them over to local and state governments. So the question here is, whose responsibility is it to keep these communities thriving?

While the report states that many private sectors are under no obligation to respond to recommendations made by the government, it also says that, as major employers, they do have  an ethical responsibility to support communities. And many people feel that they do.

Ultimately, its up to our government to keep things in check. And most of the 21 recommendations in the report into FIFO practices ask the Commonwealth Government to do more to  support people and communities affected by FIFO and DIDO work – though it is important to note that not all FIFO camps are situated near a town.

With things becoming gradually harder for mining towns, and FIFO arrangements on the rise, things are not likely to change too soon. In the meantime, organisations like Frontier  Services are doing their best to support people where it’s needed, with migrant services, day care, carer respite, pastoral care and more.

Patricia believes the biggest need at the moment is accommodation.

“Accommodation would be a huge thing,” she said. “To have enough accommodation and for it to be affordable.

“Seeing things on the ground the way we do, it’s not all beer and skittles.”

Heather Dowling

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