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Standing Committee on Regional Australia
Fly-in fly-out work practices

COMRIE, Mr Craig, Executive Officer, Youth Affairs Council of Western Australia

WESTBROOK, Mrs Be, Manager, Peel Youth Services Inc.; and Member, Youth Affairs Council of Western Australia


CHAIR: Welcome to today's hearing. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise you that this hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and therefore has the same standing as proceedings of the respective houses. We thank you for your submission. Would you like to make some opening comments, and then we will subject you to some questions.

Mr Comrie : Firstly, I want to thank the committee for looking at the issue of fly-in fly-out. It is a particularly big issue in WA. We have some level of knowledge about the impacts but we need to have more knowledge about the impacts on the Western Australian community and also the wider Australian community, so I think that it is good that this issue has been given prominence and focus.

YACWA is the peak body for young people in Western Australia. We represent the interests of young people aged between 12 and 25 in WA as well as representing the interests of 300 member organisations, which are youth services that range from smaller services through to larger service providers that work with young people. In particular, we focus our work on disadvantaged young people and young people that experience disadvantage in our community. It is our opinion that young people are, more than any other group, impacted by the fly-in fly-out industry in Western Australia. They make up a significant proportion of the workforce but they are also impacted by being part of families that have either a parent or a sibling who participates in fly-in fly-out or, in the case of rural and regional young people, they have fly-in fly-out workers coming into their communities. So that is a good proportion, a large number, of young people that are affected by this particular workforce. I went into those towns and lived in that environment as the wife of a construction person and not as a town local. I opted then—once it was time for my children to go to school—to become a home mum, so my husband did the fly-in fly-out. I also started a coaching business now that my children are grown up and I can see the need for fly-in fly-out life coaching.

Mr McCORMACK: Do you find anecdotally that fly-in fly-out is a generational thing? Do you think that a lot of kids who have grown up with some of the hardships that you have identified in your results will become fly-in fly-out workers? Or do you think that because of the obvious problems that are related to it they perhaps will settle down, have a job close to home and be a nine to fiver?

Mrs Westbrook : There is no single answer for that. I know so many young men who are in that target group—their dads are fly-in fly-out workers—and they just love the lifestyle. They love getting the opportunity to have their own home and buy their own vehicle. But then there are other people. It depends on people's individual resilience. We work with so many young people who are just so isolated and lacking in that—especially in positive male role models who can guide them, direct them and encourage them. So I think it all depends on an individual's resilience, and maybe the education—

Mr McCORMACK: Do you think people's individual resilience is decreasing, given the fact that you have identified that 44 per cent of this focus group of 185 young people identify with family conflict? The national average of marriage breakdown is somewhere around 40 per cent and you could argue that 40 per cent of those marriages obviously had family conflict otherwise they would not have ended with a divorce. So would you say these sorts of statistics add up with national averages, or do you think that as a society we are getting less resilient to the sorts of things that bind families together and keep them strong?

Mrs Westbrook : Yes, I totally agree with that. I think the breakdown starts in early childhood when we do not have that consistency of care in children's early years, which is when they create their strengths and build their resilience. So I would say yes.

Mr Comrie : With fly-in fly-out work—whether it is the mother or the father that is leaving—they are often leaving at key developmental or transitional points of that child or young person's life, and we do not know what the impacts of that are. But there is evidence to suggest that time with parents is critical at developmental and transitional points. We do not know whether in the case of FIFO families specifically that is a significant difference in terms of the developmental impact or if it is only a small difference, because we have not looked into that issue.

Mrs Westbrook : I do not think there has been much research. I have been in the FIFO industry for 30 years and I went through it all having children on my own. I do not know how much research was done back then on the impacts of being in isolation and raising children. What was the incidence of post-natal depression? Was it higher for women in that situation? I do not think there is much research out there to support that.

Ms LIVERMORE: I want to keep talking about your experience, because it is something we find really valuable, talking to people who have had this experience. What are your children up to now—if that is not too personal? Do they have a particular view?

Mrs Westbrook : My daughter will never partner a person who wants to do fly-in fly-out. She was heavily affected. My son travels Australia. He has three trades. They are both very motivated in their passions, but it really did scar my daughter. My son was more resilient.

Mr HAASE: My question is to Be. Sorry, Craig. You will have to tell us that you were a victim of FIFO before you can get our attention, perhaps! Be, with your stats here—the same as my colleague Mr McCormack's focus—in your focus groups you mentioned that 44.7 per cent of those 185 had family conflict, but the significance of that is zero unless we know what their situation is in the general public. I would suggest that it is about the same, so it is not quite specific just to those victims of FIFO.

Mrs Westbrook : No.

Mr HAASE: This is usually a line of questioning that my chairman pursues: given your 30 years of observation and your current role, what would your recommendations be to us in relation to regulating or making suggestions? Our report has to have some serious suggestions. What would some of those be from your perspective?

Mrs Westbrook : From my work perspective as manager of Peel Youth Services, we identified the need for the isolated mothers who were referring their children to us because of their inability to parent because of the impacts of FIFO. The fact that the partnering of the mother and the father in the disciplining of the children was not across the board—so the mother was more the disciplinarian person and it was becoming too hard—

Mr HAASE: Good cop, bad cop.

Mrs Westbrook : Yes. So from that I virtually created a new service. Even though we are targeted and our focus is on young people, we now have a family support worker who goes out and works with the parents—predominantly the mothers. That is one thing I would encourage. We need more funding. That is why I have started up my coaching business: because there need to be more specific support services for these people. We have playgroups. We now have mums groups in Mandurah that are bringing the fly-in fly-out parents together, which is nice and supportive. I listened to a question you asked Michelle before about kids who will come together. Culturally kids will form their own groups and support each other. I do not know if I would agree that children who are impacted on by fly-in fly-out would come together, but they might form a group with kids who are already in a situation where they are feeling disengaged from their families. I do not know if it would be specific to fly-in fly-out, but I think that they would relate to others who are disengaged.

Mr HAASE: So it could be single mothers who are not in a relationship.

Mrs Westbrook : Yes.

Mr HAASE: I was interested in Michelle's comments that you overheard. Is there a tendency, perhaps, for children in that situation to congregate, identifying themselves as victims and getting some sort of solace from the fact that here they are, tribal and all, suffering the same—'Hallelujah! We're all victims'? Is that something that—

Mrs Westbrook : That is not my point of view, I am afraid.

Mr HAASE: On the other side, then, is there a likelihood that these people that are working FIFO are often doing it for the high disposable income? If there are problems of lack of discipline or lack of ability to discipline and control children—and we all know children need control—rather than that being something that is funded by a nosy government, isn't the life-coaching that you and others might provide something that the parents might have the readies to pay for?

Mrs Westbrook : Absolutely.

Mr HAASE: What might be the recommendations for us to report?

Mrs Westbrook : Looking at some positive approaches, I do not think fly-in fly-out is going to go away, but we could be looking at ways to make it more doable, such as educating women on knowing how to Skype and how to communicate better with their partners when they are away. We need the Y generation in here to teach us how to learn to communicate more intensively rather than having the touchy-feely but still be able to keep up to speed with what is going on with our partners who are away. We just need to look at new, innovative approaches. I really do not think this is going to go away. You can give me another couple of hundred thousand dollars and I will create some more support services for young people. All NGOs are absolutely struggling for money. I support over 600 young people per year on $260,000 a year. So there are industries like—

Mr HAASE: So why aren't the young children or their parents paying you? Why is it a funded situation?

Mrs Westbrook : We are a not-for-profit organisation, so it is not a fee for service.

Mr Comrie : You would probably also find that a number of the young people that are being impacted by fly-in fly-out and being impacted by family conflict are not going to go to their parents and say, 'Can I have $160 to go and see a psychologist?' They are going to front up at a non-government service that they feel is going to support their needs and not tell their parents necessarily that they are going through the problems that they are. So, to suggest that just because fly-in fly-out families have the money, young people therefore have capacity to pay for services—there is a little bit of an impasse there as to the likelihood that a young person would talk to their parents about that particular problem, particularly in the instance where young people have little opportunity to talk to their parents about issues because they are fly-in fly-out.

Mrs Westbrook : Last year we had the shed program, which was funded by the Attorney-General. That had a high number of young males going in, with positive male role models. I love the shed model; I think it should be across Australia for all generations—intergenerational for males. We are looking at getting that up and running again, because that was a great model for young men, and I think we saw over 100 young guys last year. It was really productive and it was their space and it was interactive. It was good.

I think you need to find someone who thinks outside the box to find some innovative ways. To me, if you are going to look at satellite towns—sorry, I am going to take the floor here—for construction sites, there is a whole thing about how long a project will last, whether it is going to be sustainable. I think there are a whole lot of elements here. There is just—good luck!—lots of work.

CHAIR: Thank you.

Mr Comrie : Could I perhaps add a few things. Three key issues were identified in YACWA's consultations with our members and with young people themselves. These are both in communities that have fly-in fly-out workers leaving them and in communities that have fly-in fly-out workers coming in. I just wanted to give a bit of focus on the impact that FIFO is having on the communities that they are entering. We have had a number of consultations in regional areas in WA. Safety is a major issue for those young people. In particular, we have heard from young women in regional communities that they feel unsafe with the large proportion of fly-in fly-out men that are entering their communities. They do not feel safe walking the streets. They do not feel safe going out at night. That is a really major concern of young women, and also young men—

CHAIR: Is there any information in terms of events occurring in reality, or do people just feel uncomfortable?

Mr Comrie : We have had a number of stories anecdotally that have come directly to us from young people that do identify violence and inappropriate sexual behaviour; the stories we have heard are around quite predatory behaviour from fly-in fly-out workers with young women, minors, and also the impact of alcohol consumption in their communities. Young people have identified a number of stories with us about the violence associated with alcohol consumption in fly-in fly-out communities. I do not have anything concrete, where I can absolutely say, 'This has happened,' but we have heard from a number of young people very similar stories. It critically goes to YACWA's premise that we need to be talking to young people about these issues and finding out what is going on for them in their communities. We know that FIFO is having some positive impacts, and I definitely acknowledge that young people do report to us that having money in their family is something that they really appreciate and that they can actually keep up with technology and, I suppose, with the latest fads. But the reality is that the pay-off for that is some really significant negatives for young people in our communities. So, in terms of recommendations, I think the main focus needs to be—and I think the prominence this committee has got in the media is great—that we need to be looking at these issues. Michelle identified that it is multisystemic and it is multifaceted, so we need to research the impacts on young people and single mums, and we need to look at whether it is a sustainable way to run the mining industry in WA. We also need to look at how we can provide better employment opportunities and educational opportunities for young people in regional areas that are impacted by fly-in fly-out. That was very long-winded way of saying that we have heard these stories from young people and that is what I alluded to: we would draw from those stories in evidence that we give today.

The safety of young people in regional communities that are impacted by fly-in fly-out critically needs to be looked at, particularly because in WA a lot of regional areas, particularly those that are not near major cities, do not have adequate support services to support young people who are impacted by these particular issues. In an instance where a young person has had a bad experience with a fly-in fly-out worker, whatever that may be, or they are impacted by violence in their community, there is not a youth-specific service, there is not a counselling service and there is not a mental health service, or someone that they can trust and talk to in that community. It becomes even more of a problem when it is a particularly small community, because young people will be very reluctant to pass on their stories or talk to someone for fear that that information will be passed on very quickly. We know that, if young people bottle up the information and do not deal with things that they are facing in their lives, then other issues become big realities—self-harm or alcohol and drug abuse, and unfortunately the reality is that youth suicide in regional areas in WA is very high. I obviously cannot associate that with fly-in fly-out, but the reason I mentioned it is that we know that, if young people do not have support services at the very first opportunity they need them, then there is a much higher likelihood that those horrible endpoints become part of the reality of their life.

CHAIR: The commissioner mentioned a similar issue, talking about one of the schools where 30 per cent of the parents—one parent—is in a fly-in fly-out situation, and said that there was a need for greater support and assistance for those people, recognising that some issues are involved in the process. It struck me as a little bit odd—not that there are issues but who would pay for that service? You have a circumstance where parents are making decisions to make more money for, presumably, the good of their family and their family, anecdotally at least, are suffering in a practical sense—or at least the less resilient are—and then someone else will be asked to pay to patch up the issues that the family has.

Mr Comrie : I think it is a shared responsibility around identifying the support services that are needed. If we accept that FIFO is part of our community, then it is a public responsibility and a parental responsibility, as well as the responsibility of mining companies to ensure that their workers and families are supported. In the case we—

CHAIR: Do you see that as part of the way of promoting the activity further? If the lack of parenting that is going on is picked up by the Public Service, it promotes the activity further?

Mr Comrie : I would presume that, if you accept that one of the issues is around parenting, it would be great to have government-run services that support parents to make the correct decisions about what is best for their family and what is best for their young people or their children. I do not accept that it is just as easy as saying that it is a fly-in fly-out issue, so fly-in fly-out families have to bear the entire cost of it. They may not know that they necessarily need those services. They may be reluctant. One of the parents may be reluctant to access one of those services. We know that going to see a psychologist costs at least $160. They may be reluctant to pay that for a young person. In the instance where there is someone who is reluctant to pay it or they do not want to pay out of their FIFO pocket, we need to ensure that there are the government services there for them to be able to access if they choose. In the case of, say, a father who is reluctant to pay a private cost, the mother may be reluctant to speak to him about that or the young person may be reluctant to ask the question about going to access support services, so we need to ensure that they are available, but as I said I think it is a shared responsibility.

Ms LIVERMORE: That leads me to ask a quick question: have you got any headspace facilities in Western Australia? Where are they located?

Mr Comrie : In terms of a headspace in regional areas, there is currently one in Albany and one in the Kimberley region. There is one just recently established in Perth. There is one in Fremantle and there is just about to be one, I understand, in the City of Swan as part of the new round of announcements. Headspace is a fantastic wraparound service for young people, but, if we look at the communities in regional areas impacted by FIFO, there is a huge gap in Western Australia as to those services, particularly in Pilbara region. There is not one there at all.

Ms LIVERMORE: My other question, again, is a bit of a housekeeping or more practical one to you, Be. You spoke about setting up the dedicated family support service. Where do you find most of those referrals come from?

Mrs Westbrook : They ring. They just ring in.

Ms LIVERMORE: Self-referrals?

Mrs Westbrook : Self-referrals, yes.

Ms LIVERMORE: So it is not necessarily schools or medical organisations?

Mrs Westbrook : No, we have referrals from all over the place.

Ms LIVERMORE: All right. Just a general question to both of you: when you are engaging with young people, do young people feel a part of what is going on in this state, in this industry? Do they feel part of what is happening and do they see that as part of their future, or is it something that is just happening?

Mr Comrie : It is quite interesting. Generally, young people do not necessarily feel a large sense of belonging to their communities. They are often left out of decision making in their communities, so they feel a little bit isolated from that, but also, in the case of some of the consultations that we have done in regional areas that are impacted by FIFO or have FIFO workforces, young people are saying to us that they do not necessarily want to be part of that industry because they see the negatives of it; they want to go to university and they want to do something else. They definitely vocalise to us the issues that they are seeing around FIFO and what impact it has on their families, but I suppose necessarily feeling a connection to that particular industry. I think that is there.

Mrs Westbrook : Yes, it is like, 'See ya,' then pop into the cab, bus or whatever. There is quite a disconnection. I have a recommendation, in fact, one that I just came up with: early intervention and prevention. Is there some way that, when a person is employed in the fly-in fly-out industry, they can be really well educated on what the outcomes on their personal relationships and their personal lives are going to be when they are stepping into an industry like this? Tony, you said that it is their choice; they choose to take on that employment role. So is there something that we can put in place, prior to them really getting involved in that employment role, which is going to support them and support their families so that they are fully aware of the consequences that they are going to be going into—that early intervention before they even get into working in that industry?

CHAIR: We have had evidence where that is actually happening in some circumstances where there are groups et cetera, but there again it is the choice of people whether they accept that advice and help or not.

Mrs Westbrook : Maybe there might be a different way it can be done. The other thing was more involvement with families going onsite. I know that the amazing lady who has created that whole Fly-In Fly-Out Families website has actually gone onsite. I think it would be lovely to have that connection, with families having that ability. I know it is a major induction and safety issue. It would be great if children and the person at home were not so disconnected from that whole world of fly-in fly-out. That is part of the thing that I want to do with my coaching; I want to go on-site to film and to document, so that people understand that that man is sitting in a box away from his family and away from his wife. He is not having a wonderful time. He is working his little butt off and is quite isolated as well. I think minimising some of those unknowns and unforeseen things from both sides is important so that everyone is well informed and well educated on both sides.

CHAIR: Thank you. I think that is a good note to finish on. Thank you for taking the time to appear before us. Could we perhaps have some follow-up on that online survey and any other issues that you may have as well?

Mr Comrie : Yes. I will make sure that is done. Thank you.