What’s life really like as a FIFO worker on a mining site in Australia?

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For six months I was a FIFO worker, and for those who have no idea what FIFO is or what’s it’s like, well this is what it was like for me.

Now I know that most workers last far longer, and to those who say, ‘Only six months? I’ve had longer pisses than that.’

Well I suggest you see a doctor. Constantly emitting urine for six months sounds disgusting, and not at all normal.

Similar to being in prison, working as a fly in fly out (FIFO) worker involved being trapped in the middle of nowhere and surrounded by terrifying men who were all tougher than me.

I was getting paid and was free to leave, however, so maybe camping is a better comparison?

Where I was staying was called a campsite, but there wasn’t any hiking, natural wonders or weird European families whose clothing is either way too short or long.

What it was most like is a huge building site. Where I was stuck for three weeks at a time, and twelve hours a day. Then at the end of every day, I had only a television, alcohol and the same people I’d been working with all day for company, and over 95 per cent of them were men.

Over the Christmas break, I was asked, ‘What’s it like, being a coal miner?’

It’s a reasonable question – I was a worker on a coal mining site, but it left me crimson-faced as I admitted that’s not what I did, then awkwardly explained what my job actually involved.

I was in administration on the construction side of things, and I can count the number of actual coal miners I met while onsite on one hand, and still have three fingers left over.

The jobs onsite are broadly split in two – construction and mining. The construction phase hires far more workers, who are employed to build the infrastructure that enables the mining to happen. It includes roads, accommodation and other assorted facilities.

After that, there’s a couple of decades or so of mining to get all of the whatever out of the ground, otherwise known as the mining phase.

So what’s a typical day like? Well on a mining site, every day is exactly the same as every other day. You wake up, you work, you go to sleep, then wake up and do it all over again.

This is because out onsite most have a specific job to do, and in the highly technical world of modern mining, most of those jobs are repetitive, dangerous, and involve very limited involvement with others. The fact that I was in an air-conditioned office while it was often forty degrees outside meant that I was one of the very lucky ones.

During my six months I witnessed plenty of exciting stuff: people working drunk, forging all sorts of documents, drug deals, visiting prostitutes and lying about injuries, as well as wearing the wrong safety gear, and it was only that last one that I ever saw anyone get fired for.

These were all tiny blips, however, in the vast expanse of repetition and nothing.

Most jobs involve a swap, where you trade your time for money, which you then spend during your time off in order to get what you need and want. For most of those who work FIFO, however, so much of your time is taken up with it that there’s little left over for anything else.

What that means is that by being a FIFO, more than anything what you’re sacrificing is your life outside of the industry. Working three or four weeks at a time with only one week off, like I was doing, means that your life is put on hold while you hopefully save for a better future once you’re done.

Whenever I was out at the mining site, like most, I spent very little. Many of the guys then used those big wages to have a really good time during any time off. Some fly to Asia for a haze of hookers and cocaine, others spend big on expensive toys for the family they seldom see.

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It’s a huge problem, and explains how so many getting trapped in the industry for years and decades. They have their exit strategies, but become so addicted to living large during any time off, the so-called ‘golden handcuffs’, that they don’t manage to save anything.

Luckily I managed to save enough and get out, but these days when people ask me what life is really like as a FIFO worker, my first thought is, ‘What life?’

Xavier Toby is a writer and comedian.

His second comedy memoir ‘Going Out of My Mined’ features true stories from his time as a FIFO worker and is available now.

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