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FIFO work requires long stints away from family and friends. Photo: Glenn HuntWhile fly-in fly-out workers used to enjoy generous benefits, high wages and excellent living conditions, after the slowdown in mineral trade the industry is rapidly shrinking.Nothing tells that story better than Australia’s rural airports.

When you fly more than 2000 kilometres to work each week, you tend to rack up an enormous number of frequent flyer points.

For BHP mine worker Nathan, who did not want his real name published, almost 18 years of fly-in fly-out (FIFO) work has left him with a “gold status” frequent flyer membership; a status usually reserved for powerful, city-hopping executives.

Gold status frequent flyers have the right to skip airport queues, to travel with extra luggage and to sample the delights of Qantas Club lounges.

But Nathan may not be living the high life for long.

Since July 1,heno longer gets to keep the hundreds of thousands of frequent flyer points he earns each year.

Desperate to return its loss-making Queensland coking coal division to profitability, BHP and its partner Mitsubishi are seeking to cut costs, and frequent flyer points are the latest staff perk to be axed.

“They will save something like $12 per seat for taking the meals and the Frequent Flyer status points off us,” said Nathan, who commutes from Brisbane to Moranbah airport each week to work at BHP’s Daunia mine.

While cutting frequent flyer points is nota major crime, it’s the latest in a long list of cutbacks that are changing the face of the FIFO lifestyle.

Once showered with incentives and huge pay packets for working on Australia’s remote mines and petroleum projects, FIFO workers are facing diminishing conditions as companies struggle to survive the commodity price downturn.

Some of the cuts are merely irritating, but experts fear that other changes could have a serious impact on the health of Australia’s most unique workforce.

Before the turn of the millennium, the acronym FIFO was scarcelypart of the lexicon.Most Australian mines had residential workforces in those days, where miners would typically work a five-day week.

As the commodity boom started to ramp up around 2003, the mines started to operate seven days per week, 24 hours a day, and shifts started to stretch out toward 12hours a day.

Needing larger workforces, the resources industry sucked people out of the cities and put them to work.

With record profits rolling in, the companies could justify flying theirnew workforce between the city and the mines, and had to offer strong incentives to lure people into a new profession.

At the peak of the resources boom in 2011, expertsestimatethat more than 100,000 people were working in fly-in fly-out jobs across Australia, butthat remains a guess, as theAustralian Bureau of Statistics doesnot keepprecise measurements of the industry.

The stories of lucrative pay packets and largesse became legendary in the cities, where fixed wage workerswere left behind by rampant price inflation.

Some skilled workers, like oil and gas drilling specialist Emerson Doyle, were paid to stay home and do nothing for eight months, so their employers had their skills ready to deploy as soon as they were needed.

Former FIFO worker turned handyman Emerson Doyle prepares to set off to a job from his North Perth home. Photo: Tony Ashby

“I questioned my employers at the time, I said ‘are you sure you just want me to sit here and wait?’ They said ‘yep, you are employed to be at our beck and call’,” he told Fairfax Media.

The new generation of FIFO camps resembled oases in the desert, with grassed ovals, swimming pools, tennis courts andoften Foxtel in every room.

At Woodside’s Pluto LNG project, which was built nearthe peak of the boom, construction workers could order virtually anything they wanted for dinner, with one source recalling how he and his workmates ate crayfish and barramundi mostnight for months as reward for their hard work in humid, oppressive conditions.

But those days are gone.

With fewer resources projects being developed, the balance of power has swung back to the employers.

Low commodity prices have forced some mines to close, leading to tens of thousands of workers losing their jobs.

Doyle was made redundant from a drilling job last year, and has been forced to set up his own handyman business “House Proud Maintenance” after being overlooked for severaljob applications.

“It was clear no one was going to offer me a job so I decided to sort something out for myself,” he said.

Doyle didn’t blow his wages when times were good, but he has still found thedownturnfinancially challenging.

“I’ve got a major mortgage and two investment properties, and one of them I have currently got on the market for sale and that is just to supplement what I am doing now for work which isn’t really paying the mortgage,” he said.

Some reports have linked the decline ofFIFO jobs in Queensland withhelping Pauline Hanson be electedlast week.

Nathan reports that the quality of food at Daunia has “dropped off” in recent times.

“Everyone has gone from a stage when they were throwing money at everything to a stage when you have to tighten the belt … the first port of call is to cutback the employee benefits,” he said.

Severe cutbacks mean many FIFO camps are operating with fewer cleaners, leaving FIFO workers to make their own beds; literally and metaphorically.

Amid the harsher climate,FIFO workers are increasingly being asked to pay for some of the services they receive in the camps.

Resources companies are paying camp operators much less to do the same job, and profits forcamp operators like Sodexo and Civeo havetumbled.

A new source of revenue hadto be found, and soFIFO workers are increasingly being offered “user pays”options, where they can pay for “luxuries” at the camp like larger beds, massages or haircuts.

“It is definitely a growth area,” said John Sheridan, the executive director of camp operator ESS Support, which runs camps for BHP’s iron ore division and Chevron’s Wheatstone LNG project.

“We get feedback from (the workers) on the things they’d like to see and then we enhance our user-pay offering which really targets the types of things your typical FIFO user wants to see on site and would be prepared to pay for,” he said.

“Barista coffee is an one that has popped up … having access to massage type services, that has also come up.”

ESS has started offering FIFO workers the ingredients to “make your own pizzas”, in a bid to feed camp residents with fewer cooks.

Sheridan concedes that most camp operators have reduced the number of cleaners and cooks on site, but he says FIFO workers are still getting “a fantastic experience”.

“Where you might be doing several cleans per week, you might reduce that to one or two cleans per week, so you are still doing the cleaning to an excellent standard, it is just that you are not cleaning as often,” he said.

One senior mining industry executive, speaking on condition of anonymity, said FIFO camps had started to resemble the Shangri-La during the boom times, and a tightening of belts had been long overdue.

Rostered offDr Anne Sibbel, a community psychologistwho did her PHD on FIFO’s,is not particularly concerned about the disappearance of crayfish from campmenus, but like many FIFO researchersshe is worried about rosters.

“My concerns at the moment are with companies having tighter conditions.I just hope the conditions for FIFO workers aren’t also contracting,” Dr Sibbel said.

Two trends are emerging with regard to FIFO rosters;the fading of the boom means fewer construction workers are living the FIFO life, and the construction workers were typically the ones working more than four weeks at a time without a break.

But the other side of the story lies in the tougher economic climate, which has forced some companies to make rosters longer and harder forstaffin a bid to save money.

The highest profile example came from Fortescue Metals Group, which in 2015 told workers it could no longer afford to employ them on a roster that gave them six days off after every eight days of consecutive work. Fortescue staff now work 12 hour shifts for 14 days in a row before getting seven days of respite at home.

Some Rio Tinto workers in WA work the same roster.

The change means Fortescueneeds to buy eightfewer return flights per worker per year, but some academics have argued that the savings may eventually be diminished by higher sick rates and a higher turnover of staff.

FIFO work requires long stints away from family and friends and attracts a predominantly male workforce, and those factors make it a high-risk occupation for mental health.

In a report for Lifeline, Edith Cowan University’s Sellenger Centre found that FIFO workers were reporting a higher level of “psychological distress” than the general population, and the distress was strongest in those working the most compressed rosters.

“Workers employed to work more compressed rotations reported lower levels of getting along with general colleagues and general home communities,” the report noted.

“Single respondents employed to work more highly compressed roster rotations reported a greater likelihood of accessing telephone crisis lines.”

Most researchersbelieve rosters that demand three weeks of consecutive work or longer push workers to the threshold where theirmental health starts to deteriorate. However that risk can be reduced if they are working an “even time” roster, where they have equal amounts of time at work and on respite.

Among the 30 recommendations handed down by aparliamentary inquiry into FIFO in WA, was a suggestionthat the mining industry adopt the sorts of rosters that foster good mental health.

The inquiry specifically recommended the adoption of even-time rosters, but in a reprievefor Fortescue, the inquiryalso endorsed the two weeks on, seven daysoff roster as well.

“The key understanding we gained from the inquiry’s research was that the typical FIFO resource worker comes from the highest risk demographicfor mental illness and suicide,”said inquiry chairmanGraham Jacobs, in a forewordhe penned for the inquiry.

“FIFO takes such an individual regularly away from home, puts him in isolation from his family and other social supports, subjects him to fatigue and then controls his life within the camp environment.

“Understandably, this can have a significant impact on his emotional health and well-being.”

Thanks to the mining downturn, life for FIFO workers is a bit more Spartan. Some even have to make their own beds. Photo: Glenn Hunt

Luke Baker spent more than a decadeworking FIFO rosters and is now a campaigner for men’s health through his website “FIFO man” and his app “YFronts”.

He is sceptical that cash-strapped resources companies will listen to the inquiry’s recommendations and revert to even time rosters.

“I’m pretty sure nothing at all from that inquiry has been implemented so far and it probably doesn’t look like it is going to in this climate,” he said.

Baker agrees that three weeks of consecutive work is about the healthy threshold for most workers.

“Three weeks away from home was too long for me with the family … the third week is when everyone is heads down, kicking stones and being angry at the world.

“It would be nice if we could get it through the heads of the bean-counters that three extra shifts a year is worth a lot less than the loss of production you get from guys being longer than two weeks on the job.”

A Fortescue spokesman said a comprehensive support system was available to Fortescue workers and their families, including a chaplaincy program, but the company has no plans to change its rosters.

Local angleThe FIFO industry has beenhotly debated in Queensland too, but for different reasons.

In keeping with its unionbase, the Queensland Labor government is pushing back against the strong growth in FIFO over the past decade, in favour of more minersliving in nearbytowns.

The campaign was inspiredbyBHP’s decision to fill 100 per cent of jobs at its two newest coking coal mines, Daunia and CavalRidge, with FIFO workers; a move that excluded candidates who livedin nearby Moranbah.

PremierAnnastaciaPalaszczukhasvowed to legislate against such tactics.

BHP arguesthe 100 per cent FIFO strategy was a product of its time; commodity prices were strong, a housing shortage existed in Moranbah and the unemployment rate in the region was close to zero.

It was also a time when big miners were being challenged to share the”benefits of the boom” beyond the mining towns, and BHP duly sought to find thenewworkforce in Brisbane and Cairns.

Ragnar Udd, the asset president for the coking coal mines owned by BHP and Mitsubishi, says the 100 per cent strategyallowed BHP to employ more female and indigenous workers, and heinsists that productivity rates atDauniaandCavalRidge are also better than at theresidential mines.

But in the three years since, coal prices have collapsed, forcing the retrenchment of thousands of mine workers across Queensland.

Many Moranbah residents believe BHP should now drop its 100 per cent FIFO rule and employ locals.

“If people choose to fly-in and go straight to work, so be it. If people do that for a while and then after 12 months decide they want tolive locally, they should be able to change their mind,”said Isaac Regional Council Mayor Anne Baker

Stories abound in the region of people who have evadedthe 100 per cent FIFO rule by flying from Moranbah to Brisbane airport at their own expense, and then catching a flight straight back to begin a “FIFO”shift at either Dauniaor Caval Ridge.

“I knowa couple of guys that work in the local mine and get a plane, fly to Brisbane then fly back, which is craziness,” said Moranbah resident Russell Robertson, who works in one of BHP’s longer-standing residential mines.

BHP saysonce contractors are taken into account, some Moranbah residents doworkatDauniaandCavalRidge.But Udd saidBHPwould notallowexisting FIFO workers at those mines to becomeresidentsofMoranbah.

“You are working 12hour shifts and when you factor onto that meals, communicating with your family and whatever else, there is not a lot more than work,” said Udd.

“If all of a sudden you are going to tack on another halfhour to (drive home) I think you are actually starting to get beyond the balance of what is reasonable.

“When I look at fatigue and fatiguemanagement … that is not a risk as an organisation that I think we should betaking.”

On a bushland campus 30 minutes drive outside Moranbah liesBuffelPark, the camp that serves FIFO workers fromCavalRidge.

Apartments at Buffelare largerand spread further apart than at most Australian FIFO camps, in a bid to foster a quiet environment andgood sleeping habits.

The workers who stay atBuffeltypically worka seven days on, seven days off roster, and appear to enjoy some of the best conditions in the industry.

Coal miner Russell Robertson outside his home in Moranbah. Photo: Glenn Hunt

But like Nathan, the residents atBuffelwill no longer accumulatefrequent flyer points.

Udd is unapologetic about thedecision, and says it will help ensure furtherjobs are not lost in a division that lost $US288 million in the six months to December 31.

“I know that it is an emotive topic but none the less, how many jobs get lost by doing that? The answer is zero,” he said.

“Out of respect for our people we will do everything we can to understand ways of savingcosts in the organisation that actually return us backto profitability.”

Backin Perth, Doyle is enjoying the handyman work,but he would get back into the FIFO life if given a chance.

“I loved my work and if I got a phone call saying be at the airport for a midnight flight and go wherever, I would be there. I want to be back in it,” he said.

A swathe of inquiries into the industry across Australia have served up a plethora of suggestions for reform, but so far, legislativeaction has been limited.

Luke Baker says Australians have traditionally shown little sympathy for the lot of FIFO workers, andthe broader communityneeds to realise that times and fortunes have changed.

“There always was a stigma in the general community about how good we have it, how much money everybody earns and how easy it must be, and it never was the case,” he said.

“Now the boom is over and a lot of people are really struggling.”

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on 苏州美甲美睫培训学校.


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