Every day thousands of Australians fly in and out of remote mining sites to work in one of the nation’s most profitable industries. But workers say punishing rosters and long periods away from home are taking a toll with a growing number of FIFO workers taking their own lives.
By
Joel Tozer, Lanneke Hargreaves

9 Apr 2015 - 4:27 PM  UPDATED 20 Dec 2016 - 2:29 PM

* Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467 or follow @LifelineAust @OntheLineAus @kidshelp @beyondblue @headspace_aus @ReachOut_AUS on Twitter.

This FIFO Life is a community service program specifically for FIFOs and their families.

BHP responded to The Feed's story. You can read their response here.

Every day, thousands of Australians fly in and out of remote mining sites to work in one of the country’s most profitable industries. With high wages and companies covering the cost of flights, accommodation and food, it’s a job that for many is a too good job to turn down.

But there’s a dark side to FIFO work, and it is costing lives.

XAVIER’S STORY – Moranbah, Central Queensland

“One of the things I was told when I started out here was to have an exit strategy,” said Xavier. “What sort of job tells you to plan for when you finish, to keep yourself sane?”

Two years ago, Xavier took a job as a fly-in fly-out worker in Central Queensland, spending three weeks at a time living and working in a camp 17 km outside of Moranbah. He stayed for six months to pay off a large credit card debt.

“A lot of people plan like that; a few years, pay off a house, maybe an investment property,” he said. “But they get caught in the golden handcuffs. People get attached to the toys and the money and they get stuck for years and years.”

He said he was unprepared for the reality of FIFO work or mining towns before starting work, not knowing anyone who was a FIFO worker or living in Moranbah.  “It wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the mining. They’ve whacked a few sheets of corrugated iron up, and a nice swimming pool and a couple of pubs and they call that a town. But nothing looks all that permanent.”

Moranbah is a small mining town 12 hours drive northwest of Brisbane, situated on one of the country’s largest coal deposits. It was established in 1969 by a mining company to house its workers. In the last five years the town has seen its biggest ever boom. But as the price of coal declines and construction slows, the town is now struggling.

The boom is now over, with fewer mining workers living in the town and the resulting cash flow drying up. One resident said, “You’re walking around the streets going, ‘why am I still here? There is no benefit in staying out here anymore’.”

Anne Baker, the Mayor of Isaac Regional Council, of which Moranbah is a part, laments the loss of people and economic activity from her towns. “We’ve currently got 27 operating coal mines and two of them are 100% forced FIFO, and surrounding mines are adopting similar practices. It’s a significant change in how mining companies employ their workforce. “

 A hundred per cent FIFO mines require that all workers must fly in from areas such as Cairns and Brisbane - not from the local towns. This system prevents Moranbah residents from working in the mines, effectively inhibiting the ability of the employees to have a work-life balance.  Residents claim that some go so far as to relocate to Brisbane or Cairns to keep their jobs, staying locked up in the camps overnight rather than with their families just a few kilometres away.

Dr Schultz, a GP from Moranbah, said, “I’ve got no doubt the best option is to live locally, live with your family, stay in your own home near your kids and drive to work.  I see FIFO as an instrument that mining operators use to control the workforce. It’s as simple as that.”

Moranbah locals say the biggest threat to the town’s survival is the move by mining companies to employ FIFO workers over locals. 

A real estate agent told The Feed, “the fact that the kids who live here can’t get jobs in these mines is ridiculous.”

A local motel owner agrees.  “How many more people have got to leave before anything is done about it?”

Coalition MP Michelle Landry’s electorate covers many mining towns, including Moranbah. Two years ago, Landry came to power, winning a previously safe Labor seat, promising to remove 100 per cent of FIFO workers.  She claims to have worked hard to this end.

Tony Windsor, a former federal independent MP, also raised concerns on the impact of FIFO work.

“I think that’s a shocking indictment of policy in Australia. We should be encouraging people to move to these towns and promoting a sense of the community as a benefit,” he said. “To shuffle them back into the feedlots – our major cities – and just fly people in and out. That’s mining in two respects; mining a resource, but also mining people.”

“It’s the ideal work practice for a capitalist mining company,” said Windsor.

Two years ago Windor led a report into the issue, with hundreds of people interviewed right across Australia. The report made a number of recommendations, one of which that FIFO be used sparingly.

Without scaling back FIFO work practices, the future for Moranbah is grim. Tax breaks for using FIFO workers make it more attractive to mining companies, but there is mounting evidence that the social cost of this practice is much greater than anticipated.

“The hardest thing about FIFO life is the hours and repetition. I think even if you were doing the thing that you most loved doing in the world, and people made you do that for 12 hours at a time for three weeks at a time, you’d very quickly get sick of it,” said Xavier.

After six months working as a FIFO, Xavier decided to leave the job. While he is critical of the industry, he can now make light of his time working in mining, using it as material for his stand-up comedy show and an upcoming book.

“If I found myself in a lot of debt, would I do it again? Well, I have a feeling after doing this interview there is no way in the world I would be able to work in mining. There’s talk about employees being black listed for all sorts of things and no one knows why. People are worried about going and talking to mental health professionals because they just don’t know where that information goes.”

So I don’t know what I’d do but I wouldn’t do this,” he said.

SIMON’S STORY

In another town across the country, Simon (not his real name) told The Feed of his experience with FIFO work.

“It’s the only job I’ve ever been on where you’re wishing your life away. That’s the easiest way to explain it. Because no-one wants to be there, and all they’re thinking about is getting home getting home, getting home, getting home.”

 “You can always tell the people who have been out there too long because their social skills are gone. They just basically hate the world and themselves in general.”

Simon has been a FIFO worker for more than 15 years. He recognises that by speaking out about the realities of the industry he is risking his job, and that too many workers are afraid to do it.

“It’s a very selfish job. You only think of one person there,” he said. “But you have to because at the end of the day this type of work never lasts forever.”

He has committed to leaving FIFO work many times, but the financial benefits always drew him back. “I swore black and blue no more, no more. But then the feet start to get itchy, the bank account starts dwindling a little bit… you end up going back out there. It swallows you whole, it drags you in. It’s very difficult to be able to just leave the industry.”

Simon describes life on site as “a five star prison camp.”

“You have to follow procedure every minute of the day. You have to start work at a certain time, the kitchen opens and closes at a certain time, the swimming pool opens at a certain time. Everything is to a time frame.”

Simon works four weeks straight at the camp, and then has a week at home. This rhythm - known in the industry as a ‘swing’ - is one of the toughest in the industry. Workers call it the divorce swing.

“I get shitty on day 22 or 23, a lot of my friends would not say shitty  - they’d say ‘very bloody horrible’,” he said.

“I’ve had some bloody horrible thoughts go through my head, some extremely horrible thoughts. You’re thinking of every other reason to get the hell off the work site. Then you think, I’ve only got four days to go, I can cruise home and I have got seven days off.”

Simon claims that suicide has been a widespread problem in the camp for years.

“Everybody thinks it’s a nice little clean job, but it has the highest rate of suicide in Australia between the age of 25 and 44. It’s just massive. They’ve finally realised how many people are bloody doing it, but the crews on the ground have been saying that something is wrong for years.”

LYNETTE’S STORY – Central Queensland

Medics in the camps confirm Simon’s report that suicide is a growing issue.

“We were called to a young man’s room. They’d found him hanging on the back of his door,” recalled Lynette. He had last been seen only 15 minutes before.

“As soon as the incident was over no one cared, no one wanted to talk about it. The companies are all about their reputation, and if it does get out to the media, to the public, that there was a suicide on site and it was because of the work conditions, then they’re going to get a bad reputation, people aren’t going to want to invest in them.”

She believes discussion about mental illness is deliberately suppressed. “As soon as managers found out that someone had a mental illness, they were very quick to judge and very quick to say ‘this person shouldn’t be on site. How can someone with depression be on site?’”

Lynette has worked as a FIFO paramedic in central Queensland for the past two years. She says supervisors bully employees to go back to work injured, with health and safety representatives accompanying workers and asking for simpler procedures because it would look better on their paperwork. “We would just stand our ground,” she said. “They don’t care about their workers. They cared about the bottom line, and the bottom line is money.”

“You make a lot of sacrifices for companies that don’t really care about you.”

RHYS’S STORY – Hope Downs

Rhys Connor was a FIFO worker at Rio Tinto’s Hope Downs mine in Western Australia.

Sue Crock interviewed Rhys for government-funded program This FIFO Life, a resource for FIFO workers, their families and communities.

“He contacted me and said he’d like to be interviewed,” said Sue.” He was very open about his experience, his concerns about FIFO. He was well aware that his job could be at risk.”

Pete, Rhys’ stepfather, says Rhys was attracted to the financial benefits of FIFO work. “He always used to talk about the ‘pip’,” he said.

Rhys confessed that his working life was detrimental to his mental health. “People do struggle up there with depression. I am going through it at the moment, and you miss your family. You’re going back to your room every night and you just think about things, you know. You think about your family, what they are doing now.”

Rhys had a young son and had recently separated from his partner.  Anita, Rhys’ mother, said, “they go back to their room and their problems manifest and become bigger than Ben Hur.”

 “He found it hard as Blaize was getting older. You miss events, you miss school certificates, you miss this, and you miss that. It’s not easy on any FIFO worker with a family. “

“People are too scared to put their hands up and say, ‘I’m having a hard time this week, I need a week off.’ They are scared of job loss – it’s simple as that.”

Just days after filming the interview with Sue Crock, Rhys took his own life in his room at the mining camp.

Anita and Pete are haunted by the possibility they could have prevented his death. “All night you’re thinking, ‘what could we have done?’ We knew he was a bit down; should we have made him stay at home? It’s like something’s dead inside,” said Anita.

“People say, ‘you’ve got your other kids to live for’, but I feel like saying back to them, ‘which one of your kids would you like to live without?’ It’s not that easy.”

Anita and Pete are critical of Rio Tinto’s handling of Rhys’ death. The two weren’t informed until 12 hours after he was discovered, and his body was already being transported back to Perth. Given the chance, they would have accompanied him. “I just feel that there was no respect given to us as parents,” said Pete.

Rhys’ sister, Peta, believes his death is indicative of the cost of FIFO work. “Clearly Rhys wasn’t the only one struggling with this problem,” she said. “There’s a hell of a lot of other people out there that are going through the same thing.”

Since his death, Peta has researched the extent of suicide among FIFOs, collecting data from more than 500 workers. She found a high prevalence of risk factors, in particular bullying, with 55 per cent of workers alleging they were being bullied, primarily by supervisors and management. ”The rate of bullying in FIFO is incredible,” she said.

“You need to feel safe to be able to speak up about it at work. You need to feel that you’re not going to lose your job for it.”

Lifeline conducted a survey in Western Australian and found FIFO workers are more likely to experience a mental health problem than the general population, as well as having higher rates of divorce.

They also found many workers had little understanding of just how tough the job would be, as the silence around suicide in the camps and in the media meant that workers considering the role were unaware of the problem.

No mining companies are obliged to record or report suicide or suicide attempts in their camps. It is known that at least nine FIFO workers suicided in Western Australia in under a year, prompting the State Government to hold a parliamentary inquiry into the deaths. The government admitted it does not know how many FIFO workers have died from suicide but says the number is growing.

Rhys’ family gave evidence at the inquiry. “I just want mining companies to acknowledge that there are issues, and realise that maybe not all the programs they have in place are perfect. Things can improve,” said Anita.

 “This has got to stop. This is a normal everyday guy that we’ve lost. We can do better.”

THE FIGHT ABOUT FIFOS

Tony Windsor’s report has not received a response from the federal government, and none of the recommendations to reform the mining industry and address the growing number of suicides have been implemented.

 “It’s disappointing the government hasn’t responded. It says to me that these people are living in the pockets of the mining companies,” said Windsor.

“I find it almost incomprehensible that someone who says they represent regional Australia says that this isn’t relevant any more. We’ve got all these activities – suicides, abnormal work practices, changes to the economy in some of these communities – they’re all happening. To walk away and say they’re not relevant, I think that’s disgraceful.”

For voters in Michelle Landry’s electorate, the 100 per cent forced FIFO mines are still a burning issue. Asked if the report was a waste of time and money, Michelle Landry is ambivalent, admitting that while she thought some of the recommendations had merit, she had not read the full report.

“At this stage I don’t think there is anything we can really do about it. I have lobbied, spoken to the mining companies about this, spoken to the state government.”

“The mining companies have said this is the way it’s structured; that this was the way it was going to be financially secure.”

Windsor does not think this response is satisfactory. “People in Parliament are at the behest of their constituents. If their constituents get annoyed enough, they can throw them out,” he said. “If a regional member of Parliament is suggesting ‘oh, I can’t do anything about this’, we’ll end up with people working in regional communities who don’t live there. That’s absurd.”

“If The Commonwealth says that mental health is one of the big issues in Australia – regional Australia and Australia generally – they should be putting some money in to research and have a serious look at this work practice.”

The Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) represents 120,000 mining and construction workers and is one of the most powerful unions in the country. They admit that suicide has been a problem for a long time. They have been unable to push mining companies into changing the rosters of many employees.

National president, Tony Maher, told The Feed that suicide has been a problem for years and public awareness is increasing, but that the mining companies refuse to address the root of the problem; long swings and punishing hours. “What drives these things is that the corporates won’t allow any consideration of changes of rosters. There is always push back it that it will cost more and they will have to employ more workers.”

Simon is about to fly out for one of his last stints as a FIFO worker. He says the punishing rosters and time away from home are taking too much of a toll.

“I can’t wait until it’s finished. Even if another contract is offered to me, I’ll say ’no thank you, nup’. I’d rather be a little bit poorer but happier, instead of being a grumpy old bastard and cashed up.”

Lynette is also leaving FIFO work, taking a $40,000 pay cut to work in a hospital.  “Being a healthcare worker, knowing that people are struggling because they are not being looked after and I’m it… I don’t want to have to be the last line for someone. There are hundreds of people that should care but don’t.”

“The issue of suicide is going to get worse. People are losing their jobs; people are working harder and being away from their family longer. If they’re not seeking help, then it’s going to get worse.”

Anita and Pete firmly believe the ‘swings’, and the loneliness and isolation they cause, were a significant contributor to their son’s mental health.

 “We know within our hearts if Rhys was here, he wouldn’t have suicided,” Pete said.

“When I watch [his interview] I have a sense of pride. Rhys was one of the first people to actually step forward and put his hand up.”

They still don’t know if he was contemplating taking his life when he recorded the interview.

“I think at that stage he was planning to live so he was prepared to say that sometimes people aren’t okay on site. That was pretty brave of him.”

BHP responded to The Feed's story. You can read their response here.

* Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467 or follow @LifelineAust @OntheLineAus @kidshelp @beyondblue @headspace_aus @ReachOut_AUS on Twitter.

This FIFO Life is a community service program specifically for FIFOs and their families.

Xavier Toby has written a book about his experiences. You can find out more about it here.

 Tune in to #TheFeedSBS at 7.30pm Monday - Friday on SBS 2, stream live, or follow us on FacebookTwitter, or Instagram.