The issue of fly in, fly out (FIFO) workforces on mine sites is a contentious issue. There can be no doubt that for some remote operations it’s the only way to ensure a steady staffing roster, however the waters becomes muddied when the mine is located not far from established towns.
For our feature interview in this edition we talk to Isaac Regional Council Mayor, Anne Baker, who has been a tireless campaigner for less FIFO and more local employment in the mining sector. Councillor Baker’s Council area incorporates 26 operating coal mines, with a further three under construction and she sees first hand the social and economic effects FIFO has on her community.
What do you see as some of the biggest effects on a community when a local large employer adopts a FIFO model of employment?
A key concern of ours is the loss of genuine choice for employees, whether they are local or from larger centres. The Isaac experience shows when FIFO employment is the only workforce option, long-term sustainability of regional economies and traditional mining communities is seriously threatened.
FIFO employment practices limit a non-resident worker’s individual capacity to contribute to the local economy. Essentially the disposable income generated within the region isn’t spent in the region. Instead, it flies out with the individual. This is a sad reality for many of our local businesses and suppliers.
And sadly, on the community front, the isolation between the non-resident worker and the working community diminishes the strong sense of community that has been built over the years by those who have committed to living in mining towns.
Mining companies claim they’re often unable to source the number of skilled and experienced workers they need from small local communities nearby, forcing them to fly in workers from larger centres. However several mines around Central Queensland employ a predominantly local workforce with little trouble. Why do you think the ‘lack of skills’ argument is still employed by mine companies?
Mining companies are looking to reduce costs while rapidly increasing their work forces. Providing housing for families to live locally is better for local economies, families and individuals. But as the resource industry continues to grow, some mining companies are cutting costs by using the short-term FIFO model, disregarding any long-term sustainable housing solutions for their workforce and the communities in which they operate. Evidence shows FIFO practices, particularly when forced on employees, lead to less employee job satisfaction, high staff turnover and increased family breakdown.
Housing prices in mining towns are extremely high. Transitioning to a locally sourced workforce would see the populations of mining towns increase dramatically, putting more pressure on the housing market and sending prices even higher. How would you propose to address this inevitability if FIFO was wound back?
Affordability is all about supply and demand. Prices in mining towns were extremely high because the market failed to keep up with the scale of growth. The establishment of the Isaac Affordable Housing Trust was a landmark step to address affordable housing in our region. The Trust’s purpose is to develop property for low to middle income earners and for those most in need. Developments have already come on line in Moranbah, Clermont and Dysart with more planned throughout the region. In order to prevent future housing stress, greater levels of open and transparent communication needs to occur between industry and government so long-term sustainable housing development can be facilitated. Council is confident, given changes in 100% FIFO policy, that it can balance supply versus demand.
Queensland’s coal industry is struggling due to low global commodity prices and many mines are closing, entering care and maintenance mode, or slashing jobs. How can you convince mining companies to invest in local communities when the future looks uncertain?
The Bowen Basin is Australia’s premier coal producing region accounting for 80% of all the saleable coal in Queensland. More than 45 coal mines are operational in the region. While the global commodity prices are creating speculation in the market there is plenty of evidence to suggest continued growth. In fact, there has never been so much coal exported through our ports! On the ground we see continued investment in exploration and approvals and a large number of new coal mining projects and expansions have been registered with the Department of Natural Resources and Mines for the next three years. Investing in local communities, particularly those already well established, is the sensible and more importantly, most responsible way forward to support the industry and its workforce.
Mining communities are often located in Queensland’s rural areas where services and lifestyle options are limited. How would you convince a Tradie living on the beach on the Sunshine Coast to move his family to a mining town?
Those outside the experience, often misunderstand the value of living in a mining town and with 100% FIFO polices these people will never get the choice to experience it. Towns in our regions that were purpose-built for the mining industry (more than 40 years ago) have grown into thriving strong and caring communities. Local infrastructure was designed to support families, individuals and local business.
People who move here say they experience excellent community support and high quality of living. Many discover they don’t miss the fast-paced, highly commercialised nature of metropolitan areas. For example, they spend less time in traffic, gain excellent career progression opportunities, have access to state of the art sport and recreation facilities, meet down-to-earth life-long friends and get to spend more quality time with their families. Residents embrace the opportunity to take part in local events such as country race meets, campdrafts and rodeos, sports’ clubs, school activities, mothers’ groups and volunteer groups.
The sense of community and wellbeing is highly valued. The most valuable attribute is residents don’t become disconnected from their immediate family. The breakdown of a family unit certainly isn’t helped when the family is constantly apart.
What would you like to see the Government do to address the FIFO dilemma?
We want the Commonwealth Government to uphold the 21 recommendations from its inquiry into FIFO workforce practices. This is the next step in order to clearly understand the challenges and opportunities associated with FIFO practices across Australia and to begin to ease the identified risks and maximise benefits.
The Queensland Government also needs to put practical measures in place through the mining project approval processes to give workers genuine choice about where they live. We call for mining companies and the Queensland Government to truly value regionalisation, regional communities and regional Australians by responsibly meeting changing workforce and employment needs and employing predominantly local workforces where possible. We don’t believe for one minute 100% of anything is helpful, particularly in the medium to long term.
30 years ago, mine companies invested heavily in mining towns, building housing, recreation centres, services and associated infrastructure. Now FIFO, although expensive, is the preferred option. What changed?
Until local governments’ planning powers are returned and we are fully included in local decision-making, the ability to facilitate choice and balance for our local labour markets and communities is restricted. If the situation remains this way, it will be increasingly difficult for local governments to be empowered as key stakeholders in determining the future of their communities. The mining industry now dictates the future of Australia’s regions with little regard for the ongoing viability of communities during and post-mining. Countries such as Canada and Mongolia long recognised this as a problem, and acted, but Australia has not. The same companies that operate overseas don’t seem to have concerns with those countries policies, yet it’s problematic in Australia.
“The Isaac experience shows when FIFO employment is the only workforce option, long-term sustainability of regional economies and traditional mining communities is seriously threatened.”
Anne Baker – Isaac Regional Council Mayor
Isaac Regional Council Mayor
Councillor Anne Baker, along with her family, has lived in the Bowen Basin area for 27 years and the last 15 of those years have been in the community of Moranbah within the Isaac region.
She is on the board of several economic all development organisations and is an active practical community person.
Councillor Baker is a strong supporter of Local Government. She identifies Local Government as being the key to building stronger communities as it is the closest level of government to the people. She acknowledges it is important to be aware of both the State and Federal Governments working in collaboration together for the greater good of our communities, our state and nation.
Her priorities for the region are to deliver more family housing developments, to ensure economic growth and for the sustainability of the region. To improve liveability is a high priority for her and she strives towards achieving this goal both as Mayor and as an active member of her community.