Catch a plane to work

Fly in fly out’ sounds like an en­joy­able way to work but it im­poses lifestyle changes on work­ers lured by the pay packet, writes Fran Cus­worth

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence -

AIR­LINE travel once had a hint of glam­our and mys­tique about it, but for thou­sands of FIFO — fly in, fly out — min­ing work­ers, it’s about as thrilling as strap-hang­ing on a peak-hour city train.

The min­ing boom, a short­age of skilled labour and a squeeze on af­ford­able hous­ing near mine sites means the skies are grow­ing more crowded with min­ers fly­ing out of cities, most com­monly Perth, to work on re­mote sites.

FIFO, or long-dis­tance com­mut­ing, is a life of long ab­sences from fam­ily, ex­haust­ing shifts, de­li­ciously ex­tended ‘‘ week­ends’’ back home, and high wages. It lets peo­ple cash in on the boom with­out re­lo­cat­ing fam­i­lies, es­pe­cially ap­peal­ing if older chil­dren are set­tled in school or part­ners are pur­su­ing ca­reers.

At the Qan­tas Club at Perth air­port, the tran­sit point for mine work­ers across the ‘‘ quarry’’ state, work pants, com­pany-logo shirts and steel­capped boots are de rigueur, while suits are just, well, yes­ter­day’s cor­po­rate fash­ion.

Air­port spokesman Mal­colm Brad­shaw says avi­a­tion move­ments have in­creased 45 per cent and 47 per cent over the past two years. Peakhour pe­ri­ods and long-term car park­ing have be­come pres­sure points for air­port man­age­ment.

While FIFO brings mine work to more peo­ple and more staff to the labour-hun­gry mines, in­dus­try and unions see chal­lenges.

Hays re­cruit­ment se­nior man­ager of re­sources, Jim Fearon, says more than 75 per cent of the jobs his sec­tor deals with are FIFO.

‘‘ Given the vol­umes the big com­pa­nies need, it is get­ting harder to find enough peo­ple will­ing to go and live in those places,’’ he said. ‘‘ There are still peo­ple who want to do res­i­den­tial (live on site), but they’re usu­ally peo­ple with young fam­i­lies who want to keep the fam­ily unit to­gether. FIFO is a pretty unique way of life, and some peo­ple do strug­gle with it.’’

The boom has dragged the life-bal­ance scales in FIFO work­ers’ favour. Com­pa­nies un­able to sim­ply push wages and salaries higher and higher to re­tain work­ers are now dan­gling the car­rot of bet­ter ros­ters. While three weeks on and one week off might have been com­mon five years ago, more com­pa­nies are now of­fer­ing nine days on, five days off, or eight days on and six days off. What­ever the split, FIFO also de­liv­ers no-charge ac­com­mo­da­tion and meals.

CFMEU min­ing and en­ergy di­vi­sion sec­re­tary Gary Wood says even-time ros­ters were re­ally what was needed to make FIFO sus­tain­able for work­ers and fam­i­lies.

‘‘ You need to think about health, safety and work-life bal­ance. Yes, you might get a week off ev­ery two or three weeks to do what you like, but it’s not that sim­ple. You can earn big money, but you don’t want to pay the ul­ti­mate price — your mar­riage, your fam­ily. It’s not much fun sit­ting there in your old age with lots of money and no one around you.’’

Some work­ers use their block of time off to moon­light — pur­su­ing con­tract work or run­ning a busi­ness — while oth­ers say chunks of time with fam­ily are bet­ter than the con­ven­tional week­end sprint. There are cou­ples who agree to do FIFO for a set pe­riod of time, sav­ing for a goal such as a house de­posit, kids’ ed­u­ca­tion or an over­seas trip.

The down­sides to long-dis­tance com­mut­ing can be reeled off by any steel-capped worker at Perth air­port: iso­la­tion, lone­li­ness, the te­dium of camp life (al­though most sites of­fer re­cre­ation ac­tiv­i­ties such as gyms), an in­abil­ity to dis­tance your­self from work, and for those with fam­i­lies, sep­a­ra­tion from chil­dren.

Jour­neys to sites are gen­er­ally made on the worker’s time. Flights av­er­age 2.5 hours. Work­ers need to be at the air­port an hour be­fore take­off, and first have to get to the air­port. This could mount up to a five-hour trip at the start and fin­ish of each work pe­riod — un­paid time.

Work­ers com­mut­ing from Melbourne

or Syd­ney to WA mi­ne­sites face a day’s travel just to start their shift, or ‘‘ swing’’. They usu­ally pay their own way for the in­ter­state leg, and then com­pa­nies cover the Perth-to-site leg. (About 90 per cent of Aus­tralian FIFO op­er­a­tions are lo­cated in West­ern Aus­tralia.)

Lo­co­mo­tive en­gine driv­ers, earn­ing around $150,000, are among the in-de­mand work­ers brav­ing this cross-coun­try com­mute, says the union’s Gary Wood.

The stress of FIFO work on mar­riages is renowned in the in­dus­try. Ab­sence doesn’t al­ways make the heart grow fonder — it can grow lonely, jeal­ous and tempted. Part­ners can re­sent changes to rou­tines when the other re­turns home. The mine worker can feel like a cash cow, if the other is spend­ing freely. Clear mar­i­tal com­mu­ni­ca­tion is a chal­lenge face-to­face; try it by phone, email and SMS and the po­ten­tial for mis­un­der­stand­ing is rife.

Rhonda, the Perth-based wife of a mine worker in the Pil­bara, says she sees the young mums wait­ing at the air­port when she goes to pick up her own part­ner at the end of his twoweek shift.

‘‘ Then a cou­ple of swings later one won’t be there and I’ll ask Dean why, and he’ll say they broke up. It’s harder for the young ones.’’

FIFO is a rel­a­tively re­cent phe­nom­e­non. The tra­di­tional min­ing com­pany prac­tice of build­ing towns for the work­force has been de­clin­ing for the past two decades as build­ing costs in re­mote ar­eas rose and gov­ern­ments grew dis­in­clined to help with in­fra­struc­ture.

Two-ca­reer fam­i­lies want flex­i­bil­ity, and an ex­pand­ing avi­a­tion in­dus­try means it’s eas­ier to turn to planes, rather than of­fer houses.

Spokesman for Rio Tinto Iron Ore Ger­vase Green says FIFO is just one of a suite of pack­ages of­fered to woo em­ploy­ees: ‘‘ It’s a whole life of it’s own, well-known to a lot of peo­ple do­ing it and it’s pre­ferred by many. But it’s not for ev­ery­one.’’

Pic­ture: Andy Tyn­dall

Com­ing and go­ing: Reece and Cor­reen Ol­ney ac­cept fly in, fly out work for the ad­van­tages it of­fers

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.