Cold comfort of life on the fly

The diesel mechanic Tim Touihri does one of the longest work commutes on earth, from the capital of Indonesia to a speck in the red earth of the Pilbara.

To get to BHP Billiton's Yarrie iron ore mine where he has just worked for a straight fortnight, he left Jakarta at 6pm on a Monday for Bali, arriving in Perth at 4am the next day before taking a plane north to Port Hedland. Then it was a four-hour bus ride to the mine and a rest before he could start his first 12-hour shift.

This is the life of the FIFO, the fly-in fly-out worker.

For this Tunisian-born Australian, the resources bonanza means that losing his executive chef job in a Denpasar restaurant during the tourist slump that followed the Bali bombing has not been disastrous. He can support his wife and three children in Jakarta and live with them for the one week off in three that he is not at the mine.

''It's the way of destiny,'' he said, rushing to his plane.

To take the same flight as Touihri from Perth to Port Hedland is to trace the course of Australia's resources rush, source of so much affluence.

''Who would have ever thought 15 years ago when we were still talking boom and bust that it would be Western Australia that would underpin the stability of the Australian economy and that it would be a regional environment like the Pilbara that would be the very heartbeat of what keeps us secure?'' says Lynda Dorrington, who runs community projects in Port Hedland.

The flight starts in Perth, a boomtown thick with construction cranes and over-priced hotels, and ends in the quaint, over-burdened airport at Port Hedland where the lavishly lit 24/7 seaport groans with activity like a beast at night as it lives up to its record as the world's biggest for bulk exports.

The local state Labor MP, Tom Stephens, who was born in Sydney, jokes that most of his electorate has been dug up and shipped to China. Port Hedland, soon to celebrate its 115th anniversary, is a hub by dint of the five-fingered bay the local Kariyarra people named Marapikurrinya, meaning ''hand pointing straight''.

Where once squatters shipped out their sheep, the port last financial year shifted nearly 247 million tonnes of shipments, an increase of 23 per cent on the previous year. And although BHP Billiton recently shelved its $18.2 billion plan to extend the outer harbour, the port's shipments are still expected to rise by 40 million tonnes next year.

When the Herald visited, 32 ships lined the horizon waiting to enter port. Once that would have been the sign of a maritime strike. Today it summarises the urgent hunger for our bounty, Stephens says.

''It's not like a boom through which we are passing. A boom has a sense of something that goes 'boom', whereas this has been 10 years of a sustained anthem,'' he says.

This explains why on any weekday there are at least 4000 FIFO workers like Touihri around the town of 24,000 permanent residents that has grown cocky enough to apply for city status. It has borne the benefit and been the brunt of the Australian north-west's part in fulfilling China's industrial needs, drafting workers from around the nation to live in the nearby desert.

Waiting at Perth airport for his flight to the BHP mine at Coondewanna, Reid Jones, a 29-year-old rigger in his fifth year as a FIFO worker, is a benefactor and also a cynic who says everything relentlessly rotates around company profits. He says he feels like a cog in a profit machine as mines keep churning out iron ore, gold and copper round the clock.

Mining companies may be pulling back from long-term plans but the workers are still furiously flying in and out. And though they may cost more than $2 a day, their lives are tough by Aussie standards.

''There are no Christmas holidays … Christmas Day and other religious holidays are just another hot day in the desert,'' Jones says. And the pay is not always higher than elsewhere, but long hours and regular income are guaranteed.

''Everything is provided: T-shirts, helmets, glasses. All you have to do is wash your clothes and get to work on time. That's the crucial one,'' he says.

The industry operates on 12-hour shifts with machine-like precision around which the lives of FIFO workers and innocent Port Hedland bystanders alike are shaped.

Its small airport - where traffic has grown by 278 per cent over the past six years to more than 440,000 passengers a year as FIFO workers transit on peak weekdays - failed to cope on the day the Herald flew in. There were lost bags and, according to one complainant, lost workers as the arrival board failed to announce our flight had landed.

Inflated prices are the next shock for visitors - the All Seasons hotel self-serve restaurant was charging $39 for a dozen oysters kilpatrick and $30 for a Thai chicken curry. A very modest room, worth $90 to $100 in a NSW country town, cost $500 a night.

''That's standard in the Pilbara. I paid the same in Newman at the weekend and at Karratha,'' says the Port Hedland mayor, Kelly Howlett, who is standing as state Labor candidate at the March election after Stephens retires.

Real estate prices are higher than Sydney or Melbourne, with ordinary bungalows commanding more than $1 million. A standard three-bedroom Port Hedland house costs about $2300 a week in rent, while locals wanting to start a shop or business have little chance of finding a building to operate from, she says.

''If someone is asking $2500 for a rental property and a mining company just comes in and says I'll give you $3000 a week, and takes that property, local people do get a bit disgruntled because they can see that the companies can offer more and can take up those opportunities and it lowers the choice,'' she says.

''The pressure comes when you go to the shop to buy bread and the local camp has come and bought all the bread and there's no bread left.'' That happened at Woolworths one morning recently.

Accommodation is so short that the Immigration Department has leased its infamous detention centre to the Malaysian company Auscorp for worker housing. Orange and pink bougainvillea twines around the spiked steel fence that once confined restive asylum seekers.

''It's clearly never going to get utilised for a detention facility [again] unless Australia suddenly stops selling iron ore,'' Stephens says.

Local councillor Arnold Carter, who has spent 50 of his 84 years in Port Hedland and as an accountant was involved in the first iron ore boom of the 1960s, thinks the FIFO phenomenon has splintered the town because exhausted workers from elsewhere passing through do not engage in community life.

''You don't see the children with fly-in fly-outs. You don't see the family reunions … That's what I miss most walking down the street,'' he says.

Goldsworthy, the first mining town built in the Pilbara, had a population of 3000 that included spouses and children, where bars and tennis courts were run by volunteers, he says.

Carter says he asked a BHP executive why the company did not build houses in Port Hedland for its workers. Fifteen houses would cost $15 million and he could buy a loader for shifting iron ore onto ships for that, earning the company money rather than tying it up, the executive answered.

To Carter, the FIFO phenomenon is mostly about cost-cutting, as companies based in Australia compete with Brazil and Africa to provide the cheapest product to China.

Stephens, however, believes mining companies use it to ensure their workforce is ''docile'' and not heavily organised in unions. He knows companies reject his theory but as he approaches retirement at 60, he is prepared to speak out against the FIFO phenomenon.

He is scathing of studies that resources companies cite showing that FIFO does not harm workers. ''This is not the lifestyle of joyous, happy people, or joyous, happy communities,'' he says, after many conversations on planes with FIFOs.

''[I know] from the grumbling about the constant repetition of the family break-ups, the people who describe themselves as being trapped into these lifestyles; having lost their family, their dependence on that income to then start the next one. They become dependent on a lifestyle that is not conducive to happiness.''

The FIFO practice, he says, has spread to the port, railway and power station workers who could be living in Port Hedland. The failure to develop remote towns like this is symbolic of state and federal government neglect, he says.

The recruitment firm Hays, which conducts monthly interviews with workers, recently reported that FIFOs complained of missing important family occasions because of rigid rosters and lost privacy through shared bedrooms and bathrooms.

However, despite the downside to the madness for iron ore, many Port Hedland residents take hope from living in the midst of this gangbuster economy, according to Howlett.

''People feel they're a part of it. I recently met some plasterers who've moved over from NSW. They were all living together in a caravan. They've managed to secure a house. They've got plenty of work now … Whatever sector you look at, there are so many opportunities once you're in,'' she says.

The community worker Dorrington says a surprising number of young people come to make a quick buck and stay to start families. ''This very wild, almost cowboy type of environment is a pretty exciting place to be,'' she says.

While Carter would like FIFOs to join in for that ride, he can understand that school fees and capital city mortgages drive their temporary lives in the Pilbara.

''People have these visions of improving their lifestyle. I'd probably do the same myself,'' he says.

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