Meeting the needs of mining communities

19/11/2008 - 22:00

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IN her doctorate on the impact of fly in, fly out (FIFO) on workers, the University of Western Australia's Susan Clifford has found that FIFO is not having the deleterious effect the tabloid headlines would have us believe.

IN her doctorate on the impact of fly in, fly out (FIFO) on workers, the University of Western Australia's Susan Clifford has found that FIFO is not having the deleterious effect the tabloid headlines would have us believe.

In fact, not only are many families better off financially, Ms Clifford's survey of 223 workers over 3.5 years shows that the workers are getting more exercise, and those on night shift are getting more sleep, than their home-bound colleagues.

Sure, there are stressful periods, particularly when preparing to go back to work or when missing special events like the kids' school swimming carnival. But what job doesn't have its setbacks?

In short, Ms Clifford's findings challenge the myth that FIFO is creating an unhealthy and unhappy class of single parents.

What the PhD didn't explore is the impact FIFO is having on regional communities. Ms Clifford revealed her findings at a recent Committee for Economic Development of Australia forum and immediately drew fire from those in the audience who really call the Pilbara home.

"We own a business in Tom Price. You should ask me about my stress levels, how much I drink, especially managing the increase in costs and the trouble with keeping staff," one man said.

"It's one of the worst things that was ever created," another added.

No-one is suggesting that FIFO is the only way of meeting the workforce needs of the resources sector but, in the absence of proper regional social infrastructure and in the presence of a tax regime that makes FIFO more attractive to companies and their employees, it seems the easiest and most economical.

Until recently, companies have struggled to meet the labour demands needed to feed China's insatiable hunger for iron ore, and potential employees were only interested in those jobs that were FIFO.

Changing this mentality will require a change in political thinking and a commitment to make these regional centres more attractive places to live.

But who's going to pay for it? There's a story, perhaps apocryphal, that the state government and a mining company couldn't agree on who should fund the sewerage upgrade of a town to accommodate the large influx of workers looking to settle in the town; so it didn't happen...and FIFO continued.

The question of who should pay, it seems, is a contentious one. The mining industry believes it has paid enough.

The Chamber of Minerals and Energy's Nicole Roocke told the CEDA forum that the minerals and petroleum operations in the Pilbara contributed $8.6 billion in royalties and taxes in 2007-08 and had also invested directly and significantly in housing, childcare centres and education programs.

"The chamber is of the view that social infrastructure is a public good and that there is a responsibility on government to provide that social infrastructure," she said.

"These services are readily provided by government in other areas and the question needs to be asked, why isn't it being provided in areas that are driving the economy?"

One of the difficulties for government in making a commitment to regional infrastructure is trying to anticipate what the companies want. It was a point raised at the CEDA forum by LandCorp's Ross Holt.

"They'll let us know when they let the stock exchange know and what that means is that lots are required in a very short timeframe, which makes it very challenging and if not impossible to deliver on," Mr Holt said.

It takes an average of three years - with all the environmental, planning, Aboriginal and heritage approvals, some state, some federal, some both - from the demand for land, to its delivery.

So should we just get used to a lag effect as supply catches up with that demand? Not according to Fortescue Metal Group's Andrew Forrest, who urged our politicians, planners and promoters to build and they will come.

"People will not move where there are no services, and services won't move where there are no people," Mr Forrest told the CEDA forum.

For a man who has made his billions out of the free market, Mr Forrest sounded like a heretic.

"If you leave it to the marketplace, you won't ever get the facilities."

Enter the government. In this climate of government to the rescue, Keynesian pump priming and royalties for the regions, there's a good chance government will take the lead, and build.

Adding to the impetus is the harsh political reality facing Nationals WA leader Brendon Grylls that he may not hold the balance of power after the next state election, so he'll make the most of it while he has the opportunity.

Making a concerted effort on the social infrastructure of the Pilbara's major centres will not only help address the FIFO issue but it will improve the lot of the local indigenous Australians, a large pool of untapped labour over which Mr Forrest is also thinking outside the box. His admirable goal of enlisting companies to train and employ 50,000 indigenous Australians may well prove to be another major corporate contribution not only to the Pilbara, but the nation.

"Where we as a state will be judged, won't by our skyscrapers or our GDP, it will be how we treated the most underprivileged, in particular the original Australians," he said.

- Tom Baddeley is state director of the Committee for Economic Development of Australia.

 

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