The Suicide Shift

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Fly-In-Fly-Out (FIFO) workers who work on Australia’s giant gas, oil and mining projects commonly refer to the four weeks on, one week off, roster as “the suicide shift”. These workers are the key to the multi-billion dollar super-profits that are gouged from the red earth and sucked from the deep blue sea for big corporations, but their working conditions are extremely hazardous to their health and wellbeing.

In the twelve months to August 2014 there were nine suicides among FIFO workers in Western Australia. A year later, Unions Northern Territory said there had been seven suicides among workers from the giant Ichthys gas project near Darwin. The outcry from workers and their families drew media attention and forced a Western Australian parliamentary inquiry.

Among 42 findings and 30 recommendations, the inquiry report comments that the rate of mental health problems among FIFO workers is 50% higher than the general population. One recommendation was to “encourage” resource companies to adopt even-time rosters, two weeks on and one off or eight days on and six off. Despite the findings, much longer ‘swings’ on resource projects are still normal and mental health problems are still highly prevalent.

Suicides and management intimidation provoked a successful union campaign for better rosters on the enormous Gorgon gas project on Barrow Island off the West Australian coast in September 2015. Previously the rosters had been 26 days on with 9 off, better known as four on one off. The workforce knocked back several offers by the company and began joining the unions in large numbers. With hours to spare before a strike, the company offered a deal. A 5% pay rise and a better roster of 23 days on with 10 off. The workers accepted it.

The Socialist spoke to two workers with extended experience working FIFO rosters on major resource projects. They fear being sacked by their bosses for speaking publicly about mine worker’s mental health, so they asked not to be identified.

The first has nearly 10 years experience working on FIFO sites around Australia. He was close to proposals for a proactive approach to educating FIFO workers about their mental health and giving them tools to cope. “We have to get [workers] at the gate” he told us. He wants to see mental health and financial education as part of the safety inductions on FIFO projects. But when a proposal to trial on-site social workers was raised, the message came back loud and clear from the top: Sit down and shut up, or lose your jobs.

Our second source explained that the long stints away from family and friends was the biggest factor causing poor mental health and suicides. He suggested addressing this was crucial to dealing with the issue, requiring more union organisation and action around securing better rosters in the enterprise bargaining agreements. But the challenge is to gain these improvements without trading off any other established pay or conditions. Our first source also told us that there was a need to make mental health safety part of the agreements negotiated by unions.

Our second source observed most workers would be suspicious or scared to access company controlled mental health services. They would fear being noticed by managers and then targeted or sacked. He suggested that it would be worth trialling a union-provided confidential mental health service, in order to have the trust of the workforce. He also agreed that it would be a good idea to provide basic “mental health first aid” training to union health and safety representatives so they could keep a proactive look out for their workmates and provide advice on where to get support and help. “At the end of the day though, you’re just treating the symptoms”, he said.

The fight for mentally healthier workplaces is an industrial fight, the same as the fight for physically safer and healthier workplaces. Reducing and eliminating hazards to workers’ mental health raises the question of the split of the wealth produced on a worksite, regardless of the industry. The majority of the findings of the WA parliamentary inquiry require mining companies to spend money on additional or improved conditions, including better rosters and things like better quality phone and internet services.

Polite appeals to morality or to the conscience of people like Gina Rinehart have never improved workers’ conditions. For big bosses, profit comes before people. The Barrow Island dispute shows that exercising the collective strength of the workers on the job can win healthier and happier lives for workers against the money motivated resistance of the big bosses.

By Kirk Leonard