Mining towns and the rise of the transient workforce

A labour shortage in Australia’s resources sector has led to the rapid growth of a transient workforce in remote mining communities. robstephaustralia

Welcome to the Future of Work, a series from The Conversation that looks at the ongoing evolution of the workplace. Today, QUT’s Alison McIntosh outlines the social, cultural and economic challenges posed by transient workers in mining communities.


Global demand for minerals and fossil fuels has led to the rapid expansion of Australia’s resources sector. With this ramped-up activity, numbers of fly–in, fly–out (FIFO) and drive–in, drive–out (DIDO) non–resident workers (NRWs) have grown exponentially, placing pressures in mining communities on housing affordability, safety and infrastructure.

Mining employment has more than doubled over the past five years. The FIFO/DIDO growth rate is even greater because most workers are now contractors and essentially all contractors are NRWs. Additionally, many tens of thousands of non-resident construction workers are not counted within mining; nor are unidentified numbers for surveying, transport, processing, out-sourced maintenance and work camp operations. In short, we know little about NRWs including - crucially - numbers.

Growth of the mining industry. Alison McIntosh

Preference for FIFOs/DIDOs in project construction phases, in remote locations with settlement constraints, and for short-life mines is understandable. But it’s puzzling that NRWs are favoured in regions with low-level remoteness and with recognised project longevity. Notably, some regions have experienced continuous production from multiple mines for over 50 years and are expected to have intensified activity for many more decades. In fact, in April 2012, 98 projects at advanced stages of development and with record capital expenditure of $260.8billion have been identified. The substantial economic benefits allowed by taxation policies to organisations which favour NRWs and work camps undoubtedly influence workforce strategies.

In 2008, our ARC-funded research project set out to address aspects of masculinities and violence in regional Australia. Analysis of secondary data (framework and scope here) highlighted ‘hot spots’ for violence-related harms. This influenced our choice of study locations and serendipitously we conducted extensive field research in mining communities undergoing rapid change through the presence of FIFOs/DIDOs and work camps. Whereas once these camps were in remote locations; increasingly they are in or near established long-settled towns where they often become highly contentious.

Housing affordability and availability

Camp standards and facilities vary. Some accommodate several thousand but not all NRWs stay in camps. Mining companies also buy existing housing stock and residential land. Hotel, motel and caravan park accommodation is often block-booked months in advance by the industry. Gone are the days when state government conditions of consent included purpose-built towns in close proximity to project developments.

Expansion of towns in response to unprecedented demand for housing is often restricted by exploration leases, capital or environmental constraints and/or delayed planning decisions. These factors create acute housing shortfalls, increasing property values and rents and decreasing housing affordability, particularly for those not working in the industry.

Having lost affordability and, in some instances, diminished community amenity and wellbeing, locational appeal is reduced. Unavailable accommodation can also mean these places are unviable destinations or stop-overs for tourists.

Impacts on services and infrastructure

Economic benefits from non-resident work practices are generally limited for affected communities due to “fly–over” effects, with businesses bypassed and jobs shifting to NRWs, sometimes to the exclusion of locals. These recruitment policies push families away, reducing core populations. Importantly, workers’ choice to live locally is removed.

Services, facilities and infrastructure also suffer. Significantly, the actual full-time equivalent population (residents plus NRWs) is not recognised when determining government funding. For example, NRWs place greater demand on stretched medical services (GPs, ambulances) and infrastructure (hospitals).

Stark contrasts often exist between well-paid industry workers (with high disposable incomes) and others. Perceptions of inequities affect acceptance of these workers, fostering an “us/them” mentality. More generally, though, the metaphorical battle lines are between “insider” residents, irrespective of their employer or occupation, and the “outsider” FIFOs/DIDOs, whose presence is often resented. Greater reliance on NRWs in the future might extend rather than diminish this division.

Community safety

NRWs can sometimes represent large - even majority - proportions of local area populations. As a group, they exaggerate male dominance and have little or no attachment to workplace communities. They are transients. They are not regulated by informal social controls that traditionally characterise rural communities. Hence their existence gives rise to suspicion and concerns.

An influx of NRWs means that many shared spaces become highly masculinised places. Violent male-on-male assaults fuelled by excessive alcohol consumption are regarded as normal given the dynamics between locals and NRWs. FIFOs/DIDOs are also largely blamed for introducing a cocktail of drugs. Excessive use of alcohol or drugs is deterred by testing regimes aimed at detecting misuse although some workplaces seem to have more effective controls than others.

The applied adage of “work hard, play hard” means that pub and nightclub brawls are common. Sudden boosts to outsider numbers exacerbate levels of antagonism. Violent altercations are also common in some work camps although privatised security operations usually means that only the most serious offences attract public attention.

NRWs are the convenient and readily identified scapegoats for divisions within communities, deflecting attention from equivalent poor conduct from locals. Nevertheless, links between violence, social disorder and drunken men from work camps create a climate of fear and anxiety about safety.

Sustainability

Demand for resource sector workers undoubtedly means that FIFOs/DIDOs are here to stay. It is also clear that these practices have huge implications for host communities’ viability and wellbeing. The diminution of human, social, economic, institutional and environmental capital in mining regions jeopardises communities and towns, deters development or investment in alternative industry sectors and threatens sustainability.

Social impacts have largely escaped government, industry and academic scrutiny. Widespread dissemination of our project team’s findings includes publications in international journals, an ANZJOC article which recently won a prestigious award, and nation-wide publicity which has generated interest from industry, communities and government policy makers.

Many of these issues are emerging on the national radar. Some are the subject of an inquiry by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Regional Australia. Our ARC team’s submission (No. 95) included recommendations for addressing effects. Ideally, social, cultural and economic benefits will follow hoped-for policy changes for the long-term betterment of mining communities, many FIFO/DIDO workers and their families, and the nation.