Within the mining fraternity and surrounding communities, terms like FIFO and DIDO are commonplace and have been for some time. However, a federal inquiry launched in August of last year into the experiences of fly-in fly-out (FIFO) and drive-in drive-out (DIDO) workers is set to bring the issues of non-residential work practices within the resources sector to a wider audience.
FIFO and DIDO workers commute over long distances and stay in on-site accommodation while on roster, but return home again once their rostered time is completed. These working arrangements have been adopted by the mining industry in conjunction with the traditional employment of residential workers who relocate to mining towns.
For the local communities, who have traditionally benefited from mining, there are fears that an increase in FIFO workers will mean that mining companies can by-pass their towns altogether and economic contributions from mining will be forfeited. For other communities, the chance to become hubs for FIFO workers is seen as an answer to lowering high unemployment rates and a way to share the economic windfall of the mining boom. Still others, which are already either fly-in hubs for workers or nearby communities, have concerns about exorbitant house prices, excess alcohol consumption and rising incident rates reported by police when the FIFO workers come to town.
The inquiry by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Regional Australia, intends to determine the extent and projected growth of FIFO/DIDO work practices and the impact on individuals, communities and companies, as well as strategies for economic diversification and the provision of services, infrastructure and housing in towns with large numbers of FIFO/DIDO employees.
The divide between city and country
Committee chair, Tony Windsor MP, says: “It is clear that FIFO/DIDO work practices raise many more issues than the divide between city and country living in regional Australia. Access to electoral services and safe regional aviation are just two of the many issues that the Committee is keen to explore as part of this inquiry.”
The divide between city and country is at the crux of the matter. Regional development has not been able to keep pace with modern expectations and it is possible that even if vast amounts of money were to be thrown at regional Australia in the form of tax breaks and infrastructure upgrades, the possible shift in generational attitudes would still favour flexible workplace arrangements, such as FIFO.
BHP Billiton’s statement to the federal inquiry provides another interesting take on the issue. Manager of employee relations Christopher Platt told the inquiry: “Both our existing employees and our employee candidates have expressed a strong desire for increased access to fly-in fly-out arrangements to support their personal goals. Those goals vary. Our historical experience has shown that employees access FIFO and then return to residential arrangements as those needs change. BHP believes that it needs that flexibility to accommodate the changing needs of employees in order to secure and retain our workforce.”
A timely study led by Professor Kerry Carrington, head of the department of justice at the Queensland University of Technology, looked into the effects on regional and outback communities in Queensland. The key finding of the Social Impact of Mining Survey showed that the majority (61 per cent) of people surveyed do support mining development using non-resident workforces (25 per cent or less) as long as it is done sustainably.
“These results confirm the study hypothesis that the social licence to develop new mining projects is strong for projects requiring a 25 per cent or less non-resident workforce, diminishes significantly thereafter and is very weak for projects planning to recruit a non-resident workforce in excess of 75 per cent,” said Carrington in her report.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that while FIFO/DIDO may be good for some, it is bad for others and it could be that choice of working arrangements is necessary in order to attract and retain the best workers.
Whether they are workers, their families, communities or mining companies, all would agree that growing the resources sector needs to be done in a sustainable way. The federal inquiry allows stakeholders to explain what that means to them.