Fly-in fly-out workforce practices in Australia: The effects on children and family relationships

CFCA Paper No. 19 – February 2014

History and definitions

Workers in remote mining operations in Australia, dating back to the mid-19th century, resided in townships of varying size that were developed by the resource companies near the site of the mine (Commonwealth of Australia, 2013). Australia began to adopt the use of FIFO work practices in the early-1980s as an alternative to purpose-built townships, when developments in communications and transportation, particularly cheap and reliable air transport, resulted in FIFO work practices becoming a viable option (Storey, 2009). Storey (2001) described a multitude of factors that have contributed to increased FIFO work practices in the mining industry in recent times, including:

  • greater cost of town construction and maintenance;
  • costs and difficulties with providing social overhead capital;
  • industrial disputes;
  • worker preference for opportunities provided in metropolitan compared to rural/remote areas; and
  • changing tax and structural arrangements within the mining industry.

The Inquiry specified the introduction of the Fringe Benefits Tax Assessment Act 1986, which categorised company housing as a "fringe benefit", as a factor in the move away from purpose-built company towns. Additionally, a tight labour market, skilled labour shortages, and the costs associated with closing towns once the resource is exhausted or economically unviable are outlined as contributing factors by submissions to the Inquiry (Commonwealth of Australia, 2013).

Definitions

Issues have been raised regarding the terminology used to describe work arrangements where the employee and employer are geographically separated and significant travel is undertaken to get to the workplace (Storey, 2009; Watts, 2004). Fly-in fly-out is a restrictive descriptor as it clearly focuses on air transport (Storey, 2009). Other terms mentioned during the Inquiry to capture varying modes of transport included drive-in drive-out (DIDO), bus-in bus-out (BIBO) and ship-in ship-out (SISO) (Commonwealth of Australia, 2013). The literature highlights other efforts to accurately describe these work arrangements, including commute work and long-distance commuting (Storey, 2009),2 and intermittent husband absence (e.g., Taylor, Morrice, Clark, & McCann, 1985).

Fly-in fly-out work practices occur across a number of professions, such as medical and allied health services, but are predominantly associated with the resources industry (Commonwealth of Australia, 2013). This paper focuses on FIFO work practices in the mining industry in particular, and for its purposes the definition of fly-in fly-out mining operations is:

… those which involve work in relatively remote locations where food and lodging accommodation is provided for workers at the work site, but not for their families. Schedules are established whereby employees spend a fixed number of days working at the site, followed by a fixed number of days at home. (Storey, 2001, p.135)

Workforce profile

The Inquiry highlighted a distinct lack of authoritative national data regarding the use of FIFO work arrangements in Australia. As a result, an accurate estimate of the national FIFO workforce is unavailable. Current limitations with Census data collected by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) were highlighted in the Inquiry report, including the transience of FIFO workers and the limitations of current Census questions in assessing the breadth of the FIFO workforce (Commonwealth of Australia, 2013).

The lack of national data has implications for accurate estimations of the impact of a FIFO workforce on local services and future workforce projections. The implication, as stated in the Inquiry report, is that as available data are inconclusive in terms of numbers of FIFO workers, "a wide range of parties each make use of their own estimates of FIFO worker presence to support their claims" (Commonwealth of Australia, 2013, p. 17).

On a state/territory level, much of the FIFO workforce in Australia is concentrated in Queensland and Western Australia. Estimates of FIFO workers in each state (or at mining sites in the state) indicate the following:

  • In June 2012, approximately 31,480 FIFO workers counted in the resources regions of the Bowen Basin (Queensland Office of Economic and Statistical Research [QOESR], 2012a) and Surat Basin (QOESR, 2012b).
  • In 2011, the size of the mineral and energy sector workforce in WA was estimated at 90,000, with approximately 46,800 people (52%) employed as FIFO workers. By 2015, the numbers are expected to rise to 110,000 and 63,500 (57%) respectively (Chamber of Minerals and Energy of Western Australia, 2011).

While the resource sector workforce is predominantly male, the proportion of female workers has increased in recent years to around 15%. A number of challenges for female workers are outlined in the Inquiry, including lower wages, interpersonal relationship stress and family commitments (Commonwealth of Australia, 2013).

Most resource companies have some form of Indigenous employment program (including recruitment and training) and according to the ABS, in 2006 there were 2,491 Indigenous Australians employed by the resource industry, either as local residents or as part of a FIFO workforce. However, on average, Indigenous employees earn less than their non-Indigenous co-workers and some distinct factors limit Indigenous employee participation. These include Indigenous communities' distance from primary FIFO hubs and camp accommodation taking people away from country. Efforts have been made by some resource companies to address these issues, such as on site and in-camp mentor programs, flexible recruitment and retention practices, culturally sensitive leave allocations, and all-of-operation cultural training (Commonwealth of Australia, 2013).

Overall, projections from a number of different sources indicate that the FIFO workforce is likely to continue to grow (Commonwealth of Australia, 2013; Hoath & Haslam McKenzie, 2013).

Footnote

2 Storey (2009) proposed that the term commute work fails to capture the complexity of the work arrangements, as commuting is an integral part of most workers' experiences. He further proposed that long-distance commuting fails to focus on the complexity of work arrangements associated with FIFO as it highlights distance, which is considered a less important variable in comparison to shift length and travel time to/from work.