18/04/2012 - 10:53

FIFO delivers for many families

18/04/2012 - 10:53


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Sweeping generalisations devalue the worth of most commentary on fly-in, fly-out work practices.

Sweeping generalisations devalue the worth of most commentary on fly-in, fly-out work practices.

Media reports dealing with fly-in, fly-out work practices almost invariably start with stories about marriage breakdowns, stress, depression or sexually transmitted disease.

It’s usually a gloomy picture of people on a financial treadmill, forced to keep working in “the mines” so they can pay the bills.

There is an element of truth to all these issues but they don’t present a fully rounded picture.

And that’s a big problem when an estimated 50,000 people in the resources sector in Western Australia work on fly-in, fly-out rosters.

That’s about half the resources sector’s total workforce in WA and the proportion is set to increase.

The Chamber of Minerals & Energy estimates the resources sector will employ 110,000 people by 2015, with an estimated 57 per cent employed on fly-in, fly-out rosters.

To get a true picture of the industry, we need to ask where those people work. 

Some work on the big open-cut iron ore mines in the Pilbara that have come to characterise the resources sector.

But many others work elsewhere, in the Kimberley, the Goldfields and other regions, and often on nickel and gold mines that are very modest operations.

The experience for these people is very different to those on the big mines. They are with a smaller group of workers, the accommodation is more basic, the quality of the meals is probably lower and the recreational facilities are very limited.

At the other end of the spectrum are workers on major oil and gas projects; some are based at Karratha, others work on small islands like Thevenard and Varanus and many work on offshore platforms.

Another distinction that is absolutely critical to any analysis of fly-in, fly-out work practices is whether workers have a construction contract, or a permanent job.

Construction workers are often on a roster of four weeks on, one week off. The days are long and the work is hard, especially in the intense heat but the jobs usually last for only a period of months.

During that period, the workers are there to make good money. That is why people usually join the construction industry.

Workers with a permanent, long-term job usually work a very different roster; they are away for shorter periods of time and they see their families more frequently.

At the best sites, they have accommodation that would match many hotels or motels – a double bed, ensuite, air conditioning, television and internet connections and so on.

They have healthy food choices, gymnasiums, swimming pools, fitness instructors and strict limits on alcohol consumption.

The competition for workers means that more and more mine sites are moving towards these high standards.

Despite all this, there are issues with fly-in, fly-out workers. But is the incidence of those issues being benchmarked against workers elsewhere?

Is alcohol consumption higher, or lower, among fly-in fly-out workers than their peers?

Is the incidence of sexually transmitted disease higher, or lower?

How would construction workers on a big resources project compare with transient construction workers in the wider community?

If those questions could be answered, we would start to have a better understanding of the issues surrounding fly-in, fly-out.

Another question might be this: how do mine workers compare to the people living in small farming towns that are struggling to survive?

Those people are actually being given a lifeline by fly-in, fly-out.

Take Manjimup, which has been battered by the winding down of the timber industry. Rio Tinto has recruited workers in Manjimup, who can stay in their established homes and bring money into the town.

Fundamentally, fly-in, fly-out is about choice. It suits many people; some do it for a couple of years, others make it a career choice.

The Chamber of Minerals & Energy has made a constructive contribution by releasing  a report this week on the ways companies can deliver benefits to regional communities through fly-in, fly-out, and how to apply best practice in fly-in, fly-out  integration.

Even with best practice, fly-in, fly-out is not for all people. But nor is living in a small town in the middle of the Pilbara, where the weather is oppressively hot for much the year, partners have limited career choices and children have few educational options.


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