Four decades ago I lived and worked in the Pilbara. I worked for a large mining company who owned half the town. Despite the heat, the iron ore dust and occasional sense of remoteness, life was good. The primary and high schools were full. The sporting clubs had enough teams to complete and the faithful went to church. Family life seemed fairly normal. Dad and maybe Mum went off to work each day and came home in time for children to play, dinner to be prepared and good conversation over a background of television and homework. Life was good, wages were high and community life seemed to prosper. There were of course some social problems. Some men drank too much. There was a shortage of single women. Marriages were strained by the demands of long hours and living away from home without mum or day, aunt or uncle in the next suburb. I lived in a single men’s quarters where the meals were great but there was not a lot to do. Some men were lonely and the lure of high wages sometimes did not seem enough compensation for the tyranny of distance. Life was not idyllic but there was a sense of community and evidence of strong family life. Enter the mining boom and the age of FIFO (Fly in/Fly out).
A radical and well documented shift has taken place in those mining towns. A couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of visiting several Pilbara towns with Frontier Services chaplain, Rev John Dihm. The first thing I noticed was the empty houses, sometimes five or six in a row. The mining decline has meant that once booming towns are now struggling. Many miners have moved back to the city or back interstate. The schools, churches and sporting clubs are no longer full of people, many have closed down due to lack of members. The fabric of the towns has dramatically changed. The small single men’s quarters of the seventies have been replaced with huge mining ‘villages’, where you need a special pass to enter. There is also a sign outside that prohibits entry to anyone who has not got the right safety gear. These mining camps are huge, with some of them housing over 1500 people. The mining companies try their best to make life comfortable for the inhabitants, with high quality food, cheap alcohol, single rooms with television, en suite and internet access. I was struck by how long and hard a day in the life of a FIFO can be. The pre-start is at 4.30am with testing to ensure workers are alcohol free. In the seventies where the unions dominated the workplace a job in a mining company seemed like a cushy job. How things have changed. Most people I talked to worked long and hard and by the end of the day were exhausted. Maybe a drink or two in the wet mess (bar) followed by dinner in the dry mess (canteen) then a call home and set the alarm clock for an early start.
I glimpsed the life of a FIFO worker. There may be big bank balances but for some men the real cost is bankrupt relationships, separations, family alienation and most tragic of all, suicide. Rev John Dihm mentioned that there had been eighteen over the past two years. It seems while as a nation we prospered economically through the mining boom, we have tended to overlook the social cost to families and individuals. Mining companies do care. I met a number of compassionate people who are serving the call to support the FIFO worker. But the FIFO concept, taking men and women away from their families and communities to live in isolation for long periods of time is not conducive to healthy marriages and family life. It depletes communities and individuals. Too often a FIFO returns home and, in the struggle for adjust to family life and the family to adjust to the returnee, relationships are strained and sometimes damaged. Too easily a FIFO returns back to the mining camp with family or marriage issues unresolved and in real danger of escalating. I thank God for people like Rev John Dihm. In God’s name, he is a listening ear and gives wise counsel. He steps calmly into crises and offers the kind of ministry that brings the possibilities of hope and healing. I was a FIFO observer for a few days, he lives each day in these communities. How I wish we could clone him a dozen times over, for the need is great. Maybe in a decade or two we will look back at the FIFO experiment and conclude it was too costly; good for the economy but bad for our well-being.
Steve Francis, Moderator