Cancer of the bush or salvation for our cities? Fly-in, fly-out and drive-in, drive-out workforce practices in Regional Australia

Labour mobility Fly-in fly-out workers Rural conditions Rural and remote communities Employment Population Economics Australia

The Mayor of Kalgoorlie called the workforce practice of ‘fly-in, fly-out/drive-in, drive-out’ (FIFO/DIDO) the ‘cancer of the bush’. He claimed, and many others agreed, that it is eroding the way of life in traditional mining communities like Kalgoorlie, Karratha, Mount Isa, Broken Hill and Moranbah.

In a different light, FIFO/DIDO is presented as offering work opportunities to ease unemployment in cities and coastal areas, spreading the wealth of the resources industry and raising the question: could this be the salvation for our cities?

A century ago, many country people migrated to the cities in search of work as technology dictated less jobs on the land.

A century later, many see jobs being created in the mining sector in inland Australia with many of those jobs being taken up by city or coastal people who do not live where they work (FIFO/DIDO).

There are warning signs for inland Australia, particularly in those areas that are relatively closely settled, as well as opportunities for coastal regional centres. Obviously, some areas of remote Australia can only be serviced by FIFO/DIDO workforces, but many communities are concerned about the negative impacts on their towns and feel that although they may be the site of the resource activity, they not a major beneficiary.

This inquiry heard extensive arguments from both sides of the debate – the benefits that the high wages and time at home bring to FIFO/DIDO workers and their families, and the damage that the practice is doing to the prosperity of some of those in regional communities.

Above all else, this inquiry heard the mantra of ‘choice’ – that choice must be provided to workers to fuel the high-speed mining economy. However, the work practice is eroding the liveability of some regional communities to such an extent that it is increasingly removing the choice to ‘live-in’ rather than simply ‘cash-in’. The subsidisation of FIFO/DIDO work practices through taxation concessions to mining corporations distorts the capacity of workers to make the choice to live and work in regional communities and in fact encourages the practice.

Despite the rapid increase in FIFO/DIDO workers in Australia and the impact the practice is having on regional communities, state and federal governments and some companies appear to be oblivious to the damage that it is causing to the lives of regional people, FIFO/DIDO workers and their families.

Some regional communities see an opportunity to become a hub for FIFO/DIDO services. The report examines the implications to those towns and the towns to which the workers travel and highlights challenges for all levels of government.

Policy makers must develop a policy mix that ensures the FIFO/DIDO work practice does not become the dominant practice, as it could lead to a hollowing out of established regional towns, particularly those inland.

The Committee commenced this inquiry not knowing what it would find. What the inquiry found was a dearth of empirical evidence. This means that the state and federal governments have no capacity to respond to this phenomenon in a way that will support regional communities. Corporate employment choices have become the regional Australia policy of many governments and this is simply unacceptable.

There are simple and practical measures that can be put in place to provide more incentive for FIFO/DIDO workers to become residential workers but foremost, governments at all levels must acknowledge that, for some communities – particularly those traditional resource communities, FIFO/DIDO is a cancer.

Regional communities need a champion. This report calls for that champion. It recognises that there are some circumstances where FIFO/DIDO is warranted – for construction and very remote operations. But for operational positions located near existing regional communities, every effort should be made to make FIFO/DIDO the exception rather than the rule.

The same resource companies operating in Australia demonstrated, both in Canada and Mongolia, that they are capable of operating profitably while building regional communities and this report challenges them to extend this approach to their Australian operations.

The inquiry also heard evidence about the use of FIFO/DIDO in delivering remote health services and the benefits that this can bring for both medical practitioners and small communities without the population to support full-time medical specialists. The report supports measures to encourage the continuation of this service provision, as long as it is not at the expense of regional healthcare.

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