(Article first appeared online for WA Today, SMH and The Age on Friday, April 12 2013)
After being a fly in-fly out worker for over six months, I can say with conviction that mining towns certainly aren’t for me. Not in the slightest.
Not that I was actually living in a town. As a FIFO doing three weeks on, one week off, I was actually in a camp of thousands of dongas, rows and rows of identical single-person accommodation about twenty minutes from town.
I’m certainly not your typical truck driving, iron-ore digging and swearing miner type. Not that there’s a typical type, but speaking typically, most miners would know how to put a ute into reverse. For me, it was an awkward half-day in the pub car park before I figured it out.
Being a FIFO is not really ‘life’.
With twelve-hour shifts, as well as travel time, meetings and overtime, that doesn’t leave time for much else. Not that there’s much else to do apart from drinking, gambling and television.
‘Life’ is your week off. For most, it’s family.
When these mining towns were first established, more of an effort was made to accommodate whole families. Some of the mining towns were farming communities first, and I don’t think that FIFO farmers have ever been much of a thing.
In some towns many businesses have been forced to close because of the decrease in residents and increase in temporary workers, but shop closures in country towns isn’t exactly news, and I don’t think a mining company should be forced to prop-up the local $2 shop.
There are constant accusations that the health services are stretched. In my experience, the one time I needed to see a doctor, I called and had an appointment an hour later. In the city, I often have to call several surgeries and wait days for an appointment, or be prepared to spend hours in an emergency department.
The town where I was also had a lack of specialist doctors, because at the hospital there weren’t any. That’s right, a hospital without a doctor, which I believe is common for small communities.
To make it to the proper hospital, you had to drive a few hours, or take an ambulance or helicopter. There was always at least one ambulance available for the entire community at all times, or all mining work ceased. I was actually onsite one day where everyone was sent home, all because one ambulance was in for a service and the other was being used.
Then the mining companies are constantly being belted with claims that the streets are unsafe, because of all the extra miners. When I arrived onsite, I was told “watch out” for the locals. To quote my induction, “When they see high-vis, some locals just see red.”
The miners are on such strict contracts that even the slightest breach results in being sent straight home, and then blacklisted from all future work. The threat of losing that pay packet is enough to keep most in line. Security at camp gates have random breath testing of all drivers, and any reading other that zeros meant an official warning – and you only get one warning.
Double the population of any town, and there’s going to be more crime. However I never witnessed anything to substantiate claims from locals that, “The streets just don’t feel safe.” Walking around the town between the office, restaurants and hotels at all hours I never saw even the suggestion of a problem.
In terms of respect for women, all I can say is the attitudes of these men often fell far short of general society, but walking around any Australian city on any weeknight I would witness much more for women to worry about than I ever saw in a mining town.
From what I’ve gathered from news reports, the main gripe seems to be that the influx of FIFO workers is destroying any sense of community. Apparently the mining companies should be building family homes, not single person accommodation.
If you want to make a life out of this sort of work, then it makes sense to have your family close by. I don’t have a wife or children, and I don’t think I’d be able to cope with spending weeks at a time away from them.
However, if my choice was between spending three weeks in a donga and one week in a city, versus my life in a country town, well I’d take the donga every time. I’m likely to be sledged for saying this, but in most outer suburbs there’s very little to do, and in a country town there’s even less. I’ve tried it.
There’s a reason that people keep moving to cities and it’s not just for work. Country towns are nice to visit, but there’s no way I could live in one.
Despite all their politically correct and seemingly socially aware bluster, mining companies exist to do only one thing, and it’s not to make people’s lives better. They exist only to make money.
Any real change needs to come from government, and if we want the government to have any influence over how the mining companies operate, then we should allow greater regulation and policies like the mining tax in it’s original form. Not the watered down waste of time that we ended up with.
Working on a mining site is like being in jail. A very nice one, where you make a lot of money and get constant time off, but it’s a prison. Life is what you lead when you’re out of there.
Xavier Toby (www.xaviertoby.com) is a writer and comedian currently touring the comedy walking tour ‘2013 – When We Were Idiots’ at the:
Melbourne International Comedy Festival (Mar 27-Apr 21)
Sydney Comedy Festival (May 7-11)
Brisbane Anywhere Theatre Festival (May 12-19)