Business World

Saturday 16 December 2017

Australia's mining boom tests mettle of small communities bursting at the seams

James Regan

DESPITE a six-figure salary, Russel Wise is worried he will soon be homeless after receiving an eviction order from the one-room trailer he has rented since taking a job in an Australian coal mine in 2009.

"There aren't too many options around," says Mr Wise, who like thousands of other Australians was lured to the little town of Moranbah in the coal-rich northeast by high-paying jobs and in the process triggered a housing crisis of big-city proportions.

"The owner wants to build more modern, multi-dwelling units to house more people the mining companies can bring in and out on rotation, so I've got to go. Simple as that," says Wise.

The property crunch engulfing Moranbah and other communities peppering the Bowen Basin, a 60,000-sq-km moonscape of open pit mines supplying most of the world's coal for steel making, is one of a swelling number of downsides associated with the Australian mining boom.

You can add to the list of rising food prices, constant truck traffic, outbreaks of sexually transmitted diseases and near-non-existent health care to name a few, according to town residents, health professionals, mine workers and community advocates.

Jetting in employees on charter flights from mostly large cities to work 12-hour shifts for two weeks straight and then fly them home for a week off has long been commonplace in Australia's remote mining locations, where no towns exist.

But the growing demand for commodities in Asia is encouraging mining companies to dig deeper and faster than ever before near-established communities like Moranbah, requiring thousands more workers than local townships can supply.

Mining company executives say they are trying to attract more employees to move permanently to the towns with their families to alleviate some of the problems associated with mobile workforces, but it is proving a hard sell.

A recent survey of mine workers suggested at least half have no interest in relocating permanently to mining towns, which can be lacking in social outlets much beyond a local pub and fast-food restaurants.

"This place is okay when you're working, but on a pyjama day I'm bored stiff," says Richard Spaffey, who is sub-contracted to a mining company based in his hometown of Perth, 3,600km away, referring to a day off. "I'll head into town and the ratio of men to women will be 50 to one."

A prostitution advocacy group, called the Scarlet Alliance, is appealing to the government for help in servicing the mining communities, promoting regulated sex work as a safe alternative to unsupervised liaisons that can cause the spread of disease. By one government estimate, Australia will need an extra 89,000 mine workers over the next five years.

As a result, mining towns like Moranbah are bracing for even greater population growth around the mines.

In the United States and across Europe, jobs fairs promoting work in Australia's resources sector already draw thousands of attendees.


A programme is even under way to pay unemployed people to move to rural mining communities to work jobs indirectly connected to mining. These, too, can be lucrative. In Moranbah, the local Dominoes pizza shop can't find enough drivers to pay AU$25 (€20) per hour to make deliveries. On the outskirts of town, a billboard advertises electricians' jobs starting at AU$60 (€48) an hour. The currency is roughly the same value as the US dollar.

Accommodation is so scarce that some workers are "hotbedding" -- up to three workers share a single bed and stagger their shifts to keep out of each other's way.

"Almost universally, people have noticed that FIFO (fly in, fly out) workers have increased levels of mental stress and mental illnesses (and) quite significant increases in alcohol and other drugs," Dr David Mountain, of the Australian Medical Association, told a parliamentary hearing in April.

A survey by the regional council of Isaac, which takes in the Bowen Basin, suggests non-resident workers on average last about 18 months before becoming "tired" and quitting. (Reuters)

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