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