Ashley and Amanda Upton with Georgia, 10, and Imogen, 5.
Ashley and Amanda Upton with Georgia, 10, and Imogen, 5.

The human face of FIFO

A CAR door slams. Ten-year-old Georgia Upton is reaching for another rice cracker but her hand stills mid-flight.

Her face lights up with an impish grin as she puts down the skateboard and hurls herself at the figure stepping out of a well-loved Nissan Patrol.

Her five-year-old sister Imogen is hot on her heels, the youngest Upton's curls bouncing in anticipation. A tangle of limbs accompany the shrieks of delight as they jostle for position. Both girls are probably getting a bit too heavy to lift. Ashley Upton does it with ease, his delight less exuberant than theirs but there to see all the same.

Daddy's home.

It is a scene that is played out along the length and breadth of this country every week as parents return home from their latest swing on the mines. Whether its fly-in and fly-out, drive-in and drive-out, three weeks on or four, Australia's resources boom is leaving an indelible mark on the very fabric of our society.

There are almost 300,000 people working in mining at present with that figure set to grow by at least 40,000 next year as new projects in Western Australia and Queensland especially take flight.

More than 200,000 workers are not residents in the district in which the mine operates, a sizeable number don't even live in the same state. The clamour for jobs in the mining industry has increased significantly in the past five years as we comprehend the fallout from a manufacturing sector that is almost non-existent, the collapse of thousands of small businesses as well as state and federal government cutbacks.

Suddenly the sizeable pay packets and job security offered by the resource giants have become an enticing option for blue and white collar workers alike struggling to put food on the table or just trying to get ahead.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics reports that in Queensland, regions like the Sunshine Coast, Mackay and Rockhampton have seen their contribution to FIFO triple in the past three years, while traditional holiday spots like the Gold Coast, Hervey Bay and the Whitsundays are investing large amounts of money to become the transit lounges for this mind-boggling enterprise.

Rural towns in the Pilbara and Bowen Basin, struggling to cope with the influx, are railing against the arrival of FIFO and DIDO workers who they say are changing the feel of their communities. They point to poor infrastructure, inflated housing prices and a large number of social ills as proof the impact of this boom will have far-reaching consequences.

But the men and women who make the journey have their own demons to deal with. A rising bank balance, it seems, does not make for a watertight band aid.

Being away from family and friends, often in remote areas, for long periods of time is the main stressor for this travelling workforce.

The feelings of isolation and loneliness combined with demanding hours, negative impacts on health and skewed rosters do not make for an ideal situation.

"It was really hard at first, harder than I thought," says Ashley Upton, a boilermaker working on shutdown crews in Queensland.

"The work itself is no different but being away from your family takes a bit of getting used to.

"It gets a little easier as time goes on and you get into a routine and make friends but there is always something missing. You just get on with it and do what you have to."

Knuckling down to the task at hand seems to be the Upton mantra with Ashley's wife Amanda echoing those sentiments when talking about keeping the home ship on an even keel.

"We just got to a point where it felt like we could never get ahead," she says matter-of-factly.

"We lived simply but there were just more outgoings every month than money coming in so we decided to give it a go.

"It's not like we're after the big-ticket items, we just want to be comfortable so you're not always worrying about paying the bills.

"It is extremely emotionally draining especially in the beginning when you have to make sure everyone is coping." Her voice breaks just a little as she remembers.

"It was difficult for the girls, particularly Georgia, but eventually it starts to get better. School distracts them during the week and I just keep the weekends busy with activities and seeing family and friends.

"It's surprising how many families we know with dads working away so that makes it a bit easier for the girls. When the tears come you can at least point out that they are not alone.

"You just learn to cope."

Sandy Dean, mum to Jackson, 10, and five-year-old Jorja could probably write a book on the art of coping. Her husband Matt has had a FIFO position in Karratha, Western Australia, for the last six years.

He is meant to be home every three weeks but the reality is markedly different. More often than not his stints usually run for six weeks before he returns for seven days with his family.

If you are about to tut-tut in disapproval, Sandy has heard it all before.

"Most of our family and friends didn't approve of our choice and probably still don't," she says.

"They thought it was unfair on Jackson and took pity on me I think. But you know at the beginning we needed the money so badly and it was our only option to get ahead so we had to do it.

"There were times when it was extremely scary and stressful especially when I was pregnant. And it's sad when I think of how much Matt missed out with Jorja. It broke his heart.

"But you get through it. You focus on the fact you are building a better future for your kids."

The effects of FIFO on the men and women who go away to work and the families they leave behind has been the subject of a federal parliamentary inquiry into the non-residential mining workforce. The report, which is expected sometime next year, will also address the socio-economic impact on host towns and the strain on infrastructure as well as the benefits associated with FIFO and the inability of the industry to function without it.

There is no doubt that mining is big business in Australia.This year alone it has generated more than $240 billion with $40 billion of that going in wages and although revenue is expected to fall next year with lower prices for some commodities, it will still account for 8.4% of Australia's gross domestic product.

Mining bosses claim there will be a skills shortage of at least 36,000 by 2015 as the push to bring new projects to fruition intensifies. Of course they are hardly blameless in that area, in part creating that skills shortage by failing to implement a practical training program. Any attempt to restrict FIFO practices, they say, will have a detrimental effect on the bottom line - the government will be biting the hand that feeds it.

But the towns that host this moving workforce or neighbour the camps in which they are housed are singing from a different hymn sheet. Central Queensland's Bowen Basin has the largest coal reserves in Australia.

Isaac Regional Council, the municipality at the heart of the Bowen Basin, has to deal with the fact that 54% of its population is non-resident with projected increases driven primarily by FIFO making it the fifth fastest growing population in the country.

In his submission to the federal inquiry former IRC mayor Cedric Marshall pointed to the region's difficulty in delivering affordable housing, ensuring an acceptable standing of living for the resident population and maintaining infrastructure bowing under the strain of an unforseen load.

He spoke about the local government's frustration of having little say in the tenure approval process for new projects, the lack of help when dealing with resulting environmental concerns and social impacts and above all the miserly compensation local councils receive to solve the problems on their doorstep.

In Queensland there is one doctor to every 850 people. In Isaac the ratio is 1:8000.A KPMG study commissioned by the council last year found that 44 doctors, 235 nurses, 72 police officers and 105 additional hospital beds were needed to make the community a viable one.

The problem that FIFO brings to municipalities like Isaac is that a relatively small rate base - in this case 23,000 residents - is subsidising a population which is actually double that. But leading mining companies insist they are paying their dues with the state and federal governments demanding billions of dollars. They argue that it is up to government to use that money to provide much-needed community infrastructure, affordable housing and health, education and emergency services. 

"In 2011, for example, Rio Tinto paid around $5 billion in corporate income tax and over $2 billion in state royalties," said Rio Tinto's government relations adviser Mark O'Neill.

"And I understand that overall, in the past decade or so, state royalties have increased four to five times in line with increased output from the sector."

While rural communities buckle under the pressure of the mining boom, the towns and cities which are providing the transient workforce have reason to smile. Regions up and down the east coast which have been struggling to support populations since the GFC are breathing a sigh of relief as the financial gains from mining jobs trickle through cash-starved local businesses.

According to the ABS 1500 Sunshine Coast residents employed in the mines in 2009 jumped to 10,000 when the latest figures were released this year, while in Mackay some 54% of residents are working in mining or supporting industries.

These centres have quickly become major players in the FIFO culture as has Townsville in Queensland's north with more than 5000 miners passing through that airport every week. Opportunities in the resource sector, even though they are difficult to secure, have been a boon for white collar workers who have fallen victim to tough economic times.

They may not be at one with the culture of the industry but the financial gains appeal, while FIFO work means families can remain near their support networks.

"We have a number of families with dads who have never gotten their hands dirty before," says Mia Hayes, the Sunshine Coast coordinator for Fifofamilies, an organisation that provides support for those who remain at home.

"There seems to be no jobs on the Coast whereas there are endless positions on the mines which can offer job security.

"Moving your family to a mining town can bring with it a unique set of problems. Wages may be high but so too is the cost of housing and groceries while access to childcare, good schools and health care is limited.

"We did think about moving the family," says Amanda Upton, "but we have a home on the Coast, the kids are settled in school with their friends and everything is familiar to them.

"If we did move Ashley would still be working 12-hour days and we wouldn't see him anyway and if he was on night shift the girls would have to tip toe around the house in the day. In the end we weighed it up and thought that unsettling everyone would be too stressful."

Objectors to FIFO highlight the possibility that children can be disadvantaged by the disruption of having a parent constantly coming and going despite the fact there is actually no empirical evidence to support that claim. They say that children will be left with a sense of loss and feelings of inadequacy.

Sandy Dean considers that argument seriously before dismissing it somewhat.

"Sometimes I worry about Jackson," she says.

"He is at that age where boys like to hang out with their dads and he often says he just wants to have a normal family.

"In our street and in his class there are so many dads away that he is not in the minority anymore. But it does tug on the heart strings and that's probably one of the reasons we are starting to think about Matt coming home now."

Ashley Upton prefers to concentrate on the time he spends at home rather than the time he is away.

"When I am home, I am totally home," he says. "I think I spend more quality time with the girls now than I was able to when I worked locally. I can do the school run, take them to their activities, just hang out.

"The girls certainly are not resentful. They know they are loved and that we are doing the best we can."

Both mining companies and mining towns are waiting impatiently on the standing committee's report and the recommendations that come from it.

The Minister for Regional Australia, Regional Development and Local Government Simon Crean will have much to consider. It is obvious that mining can't survive without a transient workforce of some kind. Whether the government will submit to the demands of communities under pressure and limit FIFO numbers remains to be seen.

There is little doubt that those towns most affected by the boom should see the benefits of it. They deserve at least that, a future to be proud of. But so too does Georgia Upton.

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