As an individual sitting on a plane that is flying you to your workplace in remote Western Australia you can’t help but feel the enormous reach of the mining industry.
By a Socialist Party member
To get a start as a fly-in, fly-out (FIFO) worker you have to fill in dozens of forms, complete online courses, take an hour and half medical test, piss in a jar and hope that the little lies you’ve told about you past injuries or criminal record make it past the eyes of big brother.
At the airport lounges you see hundreds of other FIFO workers texting on their phones, red dust on their boots. They are waiting for planes to take either them home or back for another 28 day swing.
An hour and 45 minutes from Perth you are in Newman – a BHP built company town until 1981. In relatively no time you have flown across hundreds of miles of red desert and scrub to the Pilbara. A trek only aboriginal tribes would have taken, using the ‘song lines’ to navigate over what would have once been a pristine landscape.
At the airport workers search for company bus drivers holding up the signs of the mine they are off to – names like Mt Whaleback, Yandi and Jimblebar. As we plough through the scarred landscape the irony of BHP using Aboriginal names for an industry that has done such harm to a people still languishing in third world conditions hits home.
The camp I am at is huge able to house over 2000 workers. It has lines of dongers (transportable cabins) stamped with a number, each block with its own laundry. In the centre are the mess halls one wet and one dry. There is a company store, offices and a gym. New arrivals spend two days learning the site and camp rules. There are so many ways to get sacked here if you step out of line.
It takes a few days to get your routine down as every spare minute counts. I am in bed at 8pm and up at 4am. In the morning I quickly have a shower, do my emailing then head to the mess to grab my food for the day before getting on the bus before 5.15am. It takes 20 minutes to get to the mine passing through two security checkpoints while risking a $5000 fine for not wearing your seatbelt!
My experience as a FIFO has only just begun. The few old school FIFO workers I have met say its better now than it used to be. “It used to be 16 weeks on, not four on and one off like we have today. The dongers used to be crap. The walls were paper thin and there was no air-conditioning”.
Most admit that the worst part of the job is being away from your family for so long. Many travel because of the lack of work in the major cities. While the money is ok it doesn’t make up for missing important moments in your kids life or the stress it can put on a relationship.
Once on site the day begins with a briefing given by our supervisors. We do 5 minutes of warm up exercises then head out to work where it is non stop go, go, go. No phones are allowed on site, little to no casual conversation is accepted and all time keeping is down to the minute. When it rains you look to your supervisor to let you know when you can seek shelter. Each worker counts the days to their week off.
In just a few weeks six of my workmates have been sacked. Despite the way the media portray our jobs it’s no paradise here. The work is hard and the conditions are rough.
The contrast to unionised and well organised jobs in Victoria is huge. In recent times I’ve made much more money working four days on, four days off (12 hour days) close to home. I’ve also been able to have a life with my friends and family. What a difference organised labour makes.