Australia's dark side of the mine

By Greg Ansley

Community services buckle under the strain of the mining industry's fly-in, fly-out 'parasites', say observers, as locals are ignored for jobs and scared by rising crime. Herald reporter Greg Ansley investigates.

The massive influx of mine workers is straining resources to breaking point. Photo / Thinkstock
The massive influx of mine workers is straining resources to breaking point. Photo / Thinkstock

Moranbah lies on the undulating plains west of Mackay, in country first explored by Prussian adventurer Ludwig Leichhardt more than 160 years ago and driven to wealth by coal and the Utah Development Company in the 1960s.

The town grew and matured to a community of about 7000. Now it is being crushed by the mining boom, its social fabric under threat, healthcare and other essential services overloaded, and the cost of housing and accommodation pushed to extremes.

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Rents of A$2000 ($2569) a week are common. Local real estate agents list tiny two-bedroom cottages for about A$400,000, three-bedroom houses for between A$640,000 and A$750,000, and four-bedroom homes for as much as A$875,000.

The median house price in Sydney is about A$640,000, and in Melbourne A$530,000.

Across Australia's mineral-rich outback the stories are the same. The massive influx of mine workers, many of them flying or driving in and out without adding to mining towns or their economies, is straining resources to breaking point.

In the process many are damaging themselves and their families, with high suicide rates, domestic violence and marital breakdowns.

"Some communities will become unsustainable unless a cap is placed on the number of non-resident workers who are associated with the resource industry," the Queensland Local Government said in a submission to a federal parliamentary inquiry into the impact of the transient workforce.

The inquiry was ordered by the Minister for Regional Australia, Simon Crean, concerned at reports of the damage caused by huge waves of miners imported from across Australia and New Zealand.

Bob Katter, a conservative independent MP whose vast federal electorate of Kennedy spreads across almost 570,000sq km of northern Queensland, warned: "The prevalence of so-called 'fly-in, fly-out' (FIFO) staff - estimated to account for about half the mining workforce - is unequivocally destroying the social and economic fabric of the very communities which governments rely on to derive much of this nation's wealth."

Mining companies find FIFO staff easier and cheaper to use than setting up permanent workforces in remote Australia. Many live in camps, with overflows and competition for land driving up accommodation costs and the price of local goods and services.

Moranbah has become a touchstone for FIFO critics. Studies by researchers such as Professor John Rolfe, head of the University of Central Queensland's Centre for Environmental Management, have documented community concerns at the growth of mining camps. They have also reported increasing strains on local infrastructure and resources.

Local GPs Johann Scholtz and Reyno Nieuwoudt, who operate the Moranbah Medical Clinic, told the parliamentary inquiry the effects of the boom, especially on affordable housing, had added to their problems in recruiting other doctors.

Present doctor-patient ratios were unsustainable. Regular patients were forced to wait longer for appointments and same-day service was no longer possible because of the demand from FIFO workers.

Adding to the pressure was "reckless and risky" behaviour among young men, leading to increased emergency hospital admissions caused by alcohol, drugs and road accidents.

Imported diseases and viruses had also "wreaked havoc" in the town, including a measles outbreak two years ago, and contagious conditions such as conjunctivitis, influenza, gastroenteritis and whooping cough.

Jim Pearce, a mining union community advocate in the region, listed other problems: concerns for the safety of women and children, understaffed police and ambulance stations, an exodus of local families alarmed at the changes in their communities, and local businesses missing out because miners buy elsewhere.

Skilled workers were also lured from farming and local government by mining's big bucks.

Towns have become more dangerous and fearful as tensions rise between locals and itinerants. Port Hedland local Karen Adams told the inquiry: "FIFO workers have little or no regard for the town ... and really do not contribute to the community as a whole."

In Wickham, in Western Australia's mineral-rich Pilbara region, the locals call FIFO workers parasites. "They suck everything out of the community and put nothing back," the Pt Samson Community Association said.

In north Queensland the Mackay region's Social Development Centre reported rising levels of violence and alcohol abuse, underscored by a "them and us" attitude that blamed mine workers for a disproportionate share of crime and antisocial behaviour.

Increasing levels of fear and social disintegration were further fuelled by rising rates of offences, especially sexual assault - now higher in parts of the region than state averages.

The Queensland Nurses Union said tensions were also fired by miners throwing their money around in front of poorer locals, and problems arising from housing pressure that forced many people into substandard but expensive accommodation.

Towns and their services are struggling. As well as health and emergency services, school, roads, utilities, local councils and businesses are battling to cope.

Small communities are being forced into terminal nosedives as people leave, schools shrink, funding shrivels and sports and volunteer groups vanish.

In Port Hedland, Suzan Chesson said that with the explosion of FIFO workers the town did not have the residential numbers to qualify for crucial hospital services such as oncology and other specialist fields.

"The infrastructure of the town is at least 10 years behind where it should have been. This includes schools, hospitals, police stations and roads," she said.

Onslow, northern WA, resident Felicity Brennan said the FIFO workforce was crippling her town: "Locals can't afford to live here. Consequently there is no one to work the bars, supermarket and so on."

Across the mining regions, businesses complain that miners fly in supplies and ignore local traders.

Katter identified other issues: miners ignoring job applications from locals in favour of FIFO workers, essential air travel was increasingly expensive or booked out, and tourism was declining because of scarce and costly accommodation.

And FIFO workers are facing their own demons. Repeated studies have shown huge personal costs as miners leave their families and friendsbehind.

Nicole Ashby, director of the support network FIFO Families, told the inquiry that itinerant miners endured serious problems from isolation, loneliness, trust and resentment. Their partners suffered similar pain, increased often by exhaustion as the sole carer for children.

Family breakdowns were a real threat.

The Australasian Centre for Rural and Remote Mental Health also warned that the rate of suicide of male miners was four times greater than for the general male population: "A staggering figure."

Australia's luck comes at a high cost.

- NZ Herald

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