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Workers fly in and out of mines like this one in the Pilbara, bringing financial security but anxiety to their local communities. AAP/Rebecca Le May

Fly-in fly-out worth the pain, for some: study

The high profile phenomenon of fly-in fly-out workers has gained widespread attention as a unique social phenomenon since the start of the mineral boom – and it has major implications for the well-being of the workers, their families and their communities.

To find out exactly what is going on, and how it affects communities, we have been testing many of the anecdotal submissions made to the House of Representatives Enquiry into FIFO (fly-in/fly-out) Work Arrangements.

In our latest study, we looked at the effects on the communities which supply the workers, using Mandurah and Busselton in WA as case studies.

Busselton and Mandurah in south west Western Australia. Google Maps

Busselton and Mandurah are sea change communities, attracting a high percentage of part time residents often transitioning to retirement as well as retirees, many on fixed incomes. Mandurah is also increasingly identified as part of the greater metropolitan area of Perth. Busselton in the south west region of Western Australia is 230 km from Perth.

Both have experienced rapid population growth in recent decades, but the local economies aren’t doing well and many residents travel elsewhere to earn a livelihood. The Perth-Mandurah route is now one of the largest work commuter corridors in Australia.

There have been lots of media reports in recent years highlighting the many negative effects of long-distance commuting arrangements. However, our study found that the presence of a long distance commuter resident population does have disproportionate local effects at a number of different levels.

It is difficult to know exactly how many people from both communities commute long distances to work because definitive data on the mobility of a long distance commuting workforce is difficult to obtain. The ABS does not collect information specific to that workforce and there are also obstacles to obtaining comprehensive workforce data from companies sourcing labour from a given area.

However, long distance commuters earn considerably more than local workers. Interviewees indicated that the difference between working long distance and spending regular blocks away from home, as opposed to working in an equivalent position locally, carried an annual salary premium of around $40,000.

The research found that many long distance commuters are committed to a long distance commuting and block-roster lifestyle, and they and their families cope well with it.

How long the block of work is, and the regularity of time off, as well as other factors, strongly affect sense of wellbeing and the ability to transition smoothly between home and work.

But not everyone was able to switch to that lifestyle. Those who didn’t like the block rosters, or whose families didn’t cope well with the arrangements often left their FIFO job.

A number of the people we spoke to said they intensely disliked aspects of the workplace or lifestyle, but felt trapped by heavy financial commitments made on the basis of a high income, or by the lack of viable employment alternatives in their home community.

This research was not restricted to the long distance commuters. We also interviewed their spouse. We found their experience as the primary homemaker was often key to the success of the work arrangement. Their approaches to managing intermittent contact, fatigue, and loneliness and intermittent single parenting often determined whether the arrangement was short lived or long term.

FIFO is not for everyone, but it suits us. We miss [spouse] and he misses things too – birthdays and Christmas every other year, but there are definitely benefits. We have him all to ourselves all week, for every other week throughout the year. When we had the farm, we struggled and we never got ahead. Now, the stress levels are manageable and we have some good times. FIFO is good. – Spouse of a FIFO worker

Far from home: Workers at the new Fortescue mine in the Pilbara fly home with full wallets, but say they are sometimes singled out by their community. AAP/Rebecca Le May

We also found the growth of long distancing commuting has placed additional demands on social services in both Mandurah and Busselton. This is likely a result of rapid population growth rather than a disproportionate demand from the long distance commuters.

Most long distance families managed to work through the challenges of their chosen lifestyle. Where there were relationship problems, mental health issues or issues with substance abuse however, long distance commuting was likely to exacerbate them. It is vital to the wellbeing of this vulnerable group that there are adequate supports in place in the workplace and in the home community.

Providing support services for people working outside a 9-5 working week is a growing and urgent challenge. The growth of LDC has occurred alongside other structural changes in workforce arrangements, such as deregulated trading hours. Service providers we interviewed identified a need to work closely with companies to extend and adapt a number of services to meet the particular needs of long distance commuters.

Long distance commuting provides new opportunities for aesthetically appealing regional centres – such as Mandurah and Busselton that have attracted disproportionately large sea/tree change populations – to build local economies and consolidate population levels.

Long distance commuter source communities can gain directly from the higher incomes their commuters repatriate and from the indirect multiplier effects.

These are not easy to capture. Money spent locally bolsters local businesses and is likely to be re-spent in the local economy.

Although many long distance commuters said they shopped locally for everyday goods many were also inclined to go further afield for larger items. This was mainly due to lack of choice and price.

But there were also signs of underlying social tensions related to a widening gap between the ‘haves’ (who go away to work and bring back higher than average salaries), and the ‘have nots’ (on lower, local salaries), that were reported in a number of submissions to the House of Representatives FIFO Work Practices Inquiry.

Many interviewees expressed resentment at being expected to pay a premium as a long distance commuter:

I never tell a tradesman who comes to the house to give us a quote that we are a FIFO family because it is well known around here that they will jack up the price. Everyone thinks we can afford to pay because we are on a mine salary. – Spouse of FIFO worker

I get sick of people telling me I can afford to donate to this or that around town. When I am home, I keep a low profile if I can, or shop in [regional centre] where no one knows who I am or where I work. They don’t harass me about what I can or can’t afford. – FIFO worker

On the other hand, parts of the wider community are wary of a growing FIFO consumer culture in their midst.

We really enjoy having the nice things that [a mine salary] brings, but gee, I get sick of the snide remarks. – FIFO worker

Many long distance commuters in the Busselton area were older and appreciated the opportunity to bolster their superannuation or savings. “Thanks to this job, I can look forward to a comfortable retirement in a place I only ever dreamed about. For the first time in our working lives, my [spouse] and I are not struggling,” one worker told us.

Our examination of the changing social and economic dynamics in regional communities with growing long distance commuting populations, has highlighted the need for creative and flexible approaches to deal with the specific and very real challenges posed.

Long distance commuting opens up new possibilities for aesthetically appealing but economically weak regional centres such as Mandurah and Busselton. But realising this potential will require ongoing collaboration between companies, governments and community and business associations.

Our research also indicates a role for: improved pre-employment preparation for long distance commute workers; tailored orientation programmes for spouse, and direct ongoing communication to them about worker and spouse benefits and entitlements; and, the adaptation of existing support services to accommodate the particular needs of long distance commuters.

Long distance commuting has provided individuals and communities considerable benefits and opportunities but it also brings with it challenges which need to be carefully managed at all levels if the benefits are to be enduring.

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