Looming changes for FIFO employees in Western Australia

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There could be interesting changes (challenges?) ahead for Australian mining’s fly-in-fly-out (FIFO) workers, at least for the foreseeable future.

Whilst the sector has certainly seen some changes since the pandemic that is covid-19 hit the world, they could well pale by comparison to those in the pipeline. Australia, and one state in particular, leads the world when it comes to the use of FIFO mine employees. The state currently has between 6000 and 7000 interstate FIFO workers employed in its massive mining sector. They fly in and out from other states, many from Queensland. Or at least they did until covid struck the country.

Well handled

The Australian mining sector in general is to be commended for its handling of the pandemic. The Australian government recognised very early on that mining was one of the ‘essential’ industries that had to remain operational to help keep the country afloat.

Traditionally it has been responsible for around 8% of the nation’s GDP each year, and earns over half its export income. There’s also no doubt Australia has benefited greatly from the current mining woes in other countries. The forced closure of major competitors in Brazil and South Africa for instance has given Australia an opportunity to ‘fill the gap’, which it has done with alacrity.

Traditionally mining has been responsible for around 8% of the nation’s GDP each year, and earns over half its export income

During the pandemic Australia’s mining companies in general have worked with state and national governments to come up with solutions for ensuring employees do not contract and transmit the virus whilst travelling to and from a site. As a result, no employees have ‘yet’ contracted covid whilst on site in Australia, allowing the industry to remain free of infections where it matters most – on operational sites. This is in stark contrast to many other countries where infections have forced the closure of sites and, in some cases, the entire sector.

Significant challenges

Australia’s FIFO workforce though has faced some significant challenges. At the height of the pandemic, most state borders were locked down. Mining personnel were granted exemptions in most cases but still understandably faced a range of safety and quarantine restrictions. Measures like rigorous testing, enforcement of social distancing and quarantine regulations, improved cleaning, and the transport of personnel by charter flights have all become the new norm in the sector. They’ve been highly effective but they’ve also come with additional paperwork, more red tape, and increased the time it takes to move employees around.

Another ‘new norm’ has been the relocation of significant numbers of interstate FIFO personnel, particularly in Western Australia. This, Australia’s biggest mining state, has stubbornly maintained the strictest border lockdown policies in the country. Whilst most other states are opening up travel bubbles with states that have remained free of covid community transmission cases, WA remains steadfastly committed to keeping its borders closed to the rest of the country.

Arbitrary though it may seem to some, the fact is that the policy, combined with stringent quarantine protocols for those granted permits to get into the state, has had resounding economic success.

One-third of the country’s new jobs in August were in Western Australia, and the state’s mining industry is currently underpinning the national economy

The state’s economy was the only one to register positive growth in the last quarter. One-third of the country’s new jobs in August were in Western Australia, and the state’s mining industry is currently underpinning the national economy.

This has all happened because the state remains free of community transmission and thus most restrictions have been able to be eased. Indeed, for most West Aussies it’s now pretty much business as usual. Local tourism is thriving, real estate is booming, and entire sectors of the economy are back up and running as successfully, if not more so, as they were pre-covid.

The state government has also launched billions of dollars worth of ‘recovery’ projects designed to create jobs and stimulate the economy further. All in all, the immediate future for many in this small corner of the world is looking a lot brighter than it did 6 months ago, and also a lot brighter than most other places at the moment.

However, amidst all the ‘recovery and economy stimulating’ projects there lurks a not so rosy thorn for the mining sector. The WA State Government has informed the industry that it doesn’t ‘believe flying in workers from over east is sustainable any longer. With or without covid-19.’ It also ‘believes’ now is an ideal time to get serious about a policy many have long considered ‘a good idea’ because it is, in many respects, already in place courtesy of current covid-19 emergency procedures.

Will it work?

West Australians have long been known for their isolationist, self-sufficient take on life. The state’s capital is after all one of the most isolated cities in the world and is separated from the rest of the country by huge deserts and the largest stretch of exposed limestone in the world AKA the Nullarbor Plain. (Incidentally, what was until recently the longest straight stretch of road in the world lies atop that exposed limestone.) All this isolation has built a special breed of Australian, many of whom regularly talk about WAXIT ie seceding from the rest of the country, and are prone to calling eastern staters ‘foreigners’.

The state government has also launched billions of dollars worth of ‘recovery’ projects designed to create jobs and stimulate the economy further

Whilst all this may seem light hearted on the surface, it does have some relevance. Notably, the state premier’s announcement that his government wants mining companies (and indeed other similar sectors) to start putting ‘WA workers first in line for WA jobs’ has been met with a lot of support from the community and local government authorities. That means the policy is almost certain to take hold, as popular policies often do.

Indeed, the government appears to be pretty comfortable that ‘there are many West Australians that can perform the roles needed in the sector.’ That may well be the case, but whether or not they want to, is another issue. Furthermore, industry groups have warned that whilst they support the policy in general, not all skills are necessarily available locally or even within Australia.

The government’s solution for this however is that interstate people with those skills should relocate to WA, at least for the duration of their employment in WA.

Now, whilst most die-hard West Aussies will tell you they wouldn’t live anywhere else and can’t see any reason why ‘eastern staters’ shouldn’t leap at the opportunity to move west, said ‘eastern staters’ typically have a different perspective.

Many feel exactly the same way about their own state. They have family, friends and an established life there, and uprooting everyone to move to a new life on the other side of a very big island is not a challenge everyone wants, or needs. Granted, thousands of WA’s interstate FIFO workforce have already done this courtesy of covid, but it’s a pretty safe bet many did so thinking it would be temporary, and are looking forward to returning home when things return to normal.

That said, there are actually many positives for such a policy, at all levels.

Obviously, it will be a tremendous boost for the state’s economy. More people coming into WA puts more money into the economy. They will require housing, which boosts the local real estate industry. Household spending helps the retail sector. Local tourism and hospitality benefits when new arrivals spend time exploring their new environment. Indeed, much of this is already happening thanks to the many hundreds of families who have relocated to the state since the start of the pandemic.

A boost to regional communities

In the future, it’s likely many families relocating to WA will be encouraged to go to rural areas, something welcomed by regional authorities. Councils in these areas have long been concerned about the impact large numbers of transient FIFO workers moving in and out of their towns has on those communities. In an effort to resolve some of these issues, BHP and other resource companies with major operations and significant FIFO workforces in WA, have been working closely with regional shires to make places like Newman and Karratha more attractive for relocating FIFO families. Some of the incentives offered include housing and transfer assistance whilst the state government has made a range of housing blocks in rural WA available at substantially reduced prices.

Employee benefits

Whilst there are clear economic and social benefits for the towns to have people permanently living there instead of doing FIFO, there are also significant benefits for the employees themselves. Studies for instance have consistently shown that longer rosters contribute to a range of health and mental problems. Unfortunately, current covid restrictions and quarantine requirements for interstate FIFO employees means many of them are working longer rosters to reduce travel between states and unproductive time spent in quarantine.

Putting this type of pressure on employees and their families is not sustainable in the long term. Thus moving interstate and even WA FIFO employees and their families to local communities within easy travelling distance of work is seen as the most practical solution under current circumstances. Failing that, moving them to Perth is the next best option. This will result in shorter rosters, less time spent on Covid related red tape, and remove the need to spend 2 weeks in quarantine every time an employee re-enters the state.

Of course the state government and regional authorities also see moving to WA and to these local communities as a benefit in itself. Peter Long, the Mayor of the City of Karratha, believes the regional city is ‘a great place to live, with all the facilities a family requires and many extra benefits, such as being next to your work sites’.

It is a sentiment no doubt echoed by many other regional towns and cities through WA, and by the Premier himself, who also relocated to the state some years ago whilst in the Navy.

(This article first appeared in Mining International Inc.)