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Standing Committee on Regional Australia
02/11/2011
Fly-in fly-out work practices

FINDLATER-SMITH, Ms Margaret, President, National Council of Women of Australia

[10:14]

CHAIR: Welcome. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise you that this is a legal proceeding of the parliament and therefore has the same standing as proceedings of the respective houses. These proceedings are being broadcast. Thank you for taking the time to be here. Would you like to give a summary of your evidence before we ask you some questions?

Ms Findlater-Smith : Yes, thank you very much, I would like to do that. The National Council of Women of Australia is an umbrella organisation for women's NGOs. We have councils in each state, we have about 350 affiliated women's organisations and we have about 500 individual members. We have existed since 1896 and have been instrumental in advocating for improvements to the lives of women and children. As our concern is the wellbeing of women and children, we have an interest in the impact of fly-in fly-out on families and, in particular, those women and children. We appreciate the opportunity to present a submission and to speak at this hearing.

Our submission points to some issues of concern, but I would like to further highlight other matters. My knowledge is focused on the towns of the Pilbara, where I lived for three years just as the concept of fly-in fly-out was beginning. No-one could have foreseen the enormous impact it was going to have on those towns.

Karratha was established to provide a stable workforce for Cliffs Robe River, Hamersley Iron and Dampier Salt. It was a small town which grew. When I went there in 1985, it had a population of about 10,000 people. There were very few facilities in the town, but most of the small businesses evolved because the wives wanted to work and therefore they opened small businesses. That is what kept the town together. Most people lived in subsidised housing either for mining companies or for federal or state government. So everyone in the town apart from business owners—and there were some business owners who came there individually—had subsidised housing, subsidised air conditioning and all sorts of benefits of living in a remote area.

The population of Karratha has not changed. It is about the same now, probably 40 years after it was established, as it was then. It is about 11,000. This indicates that it is not growing very much. The service industries that came in also helped the towns of Dampier, Wickham and Roebourne. Roebourne had its own problems, mainly Indigenous and mainly alcohol. But that has been improved. The change has come about with the shift to fly-in fly-out workers. Now it is understood there are 10,000 workers flying in and flying out of Karratha. That is a huge number of people impacting on a town of 10,000 or 11,000 people. The fly-in fly-out workers do not pay rates. They do not contribute anything to or spend anything in the town apart from the taverns. They do not form part of any of the sporting teams of which there are now very few. They do not have children they send to school and they do not buy anything. Therefore, they are not part of the community and do not become part of the community. So you have huge camps of single men living on the outskirts of a town with no engagement whatsoever with the community.

Businesses in town are having enormous problems getting staff. They cannot afford to compete with the mining companies, who do have staff in town. Rent is about $2,000 a week. You cannot afford to subsidise your employees if you are running a small dress shop at that sort of level. So they do not get staff and therefore eventually businesses close and the town drops down again.

Community facilities are old and need improving. There is no accommodation for tourists, and tourism was a big thing in the north-west. All this accommodation is taken up by the mining companies. All the hire cars are lent out to the mining companies. So you have a stagnant town with very little in it and not much for the local people. The impact of that on the women is enormous because they have got to live in the town and they are not getting many facilities. There is, I understand, a move which is called growing the Pilbara. There is a dream that in 2020 there will be 50,000 people in Karratha. That is terrifying because more than half of those will be fly-in fly-out still not engaging with the community.

The problems with fly-in fly-out are not confined to the Pilbara. There are many small mining towns in other parts of Western Australia having problems with a huge influx of workers. The impact it is having on the towns' volunteers who run the fire brigades and the ambulance services is also enormous because the mines draw on those community services to service the mines. You have a small local ambulance service called out for all sorts of things at the mine. They might get a small contribution but not very much, and they just cannot service the town. If you have a small town of 150 people trying to run an ambulance service, a fire brigade and other ancillary services as well as service a mine, it just does not work. Most of them are farmers anyhow.

On the other hand, fly-in fly-out families have their own problems. Often the wives are living in isolation on the outskirts of Perth or in small country towns. There are difficulties managing isolation and then having the husband return for a week and go off for two weeks. There are discipline problems with their children. There are anecdotally high rates of mental health issues and family breakdown. The turnover of the fly-in fly-out staff is very high which indicates that some of these problems might be impacting on their ability to continue working.

There is no doubt fly-in fly-out is very attractive. The income for the basic unskilled person is about $120,000 a year. It is an opportunity to make a lot of money very quickly, but unfortunately there are no apprenticeships for the children in these towns, there are no jobs for the people working in these towns because they only hire fly-in fly-out. You have the difficulty of people wanting jobs in the towns and wanting to stay, but there are no jobs. Unless they can find alternative industries or employment, they will never grow these Pilbara towns to any appreciable size because there is no other industry. They have talked about horticulture and they have talked about agriculture; it is a very harsh climate. Trying to grow vegetables in the Pilbara is very difficult, believe me.

I am very disappointed that we are looking at an issue which is getting worse rather than better. Fly-in fly-out has not brought the big mining boom to the towns of Australia, it has brought it to the mining companies. The towns are not getting any benefits at all, but the shires are having to provide extra water and facilities, while not getting rates to cover that. We are not looking after our regular rural and remote residents, and I think we should be looking at that issue.

CHAIR: Thank you for using a community as an example. I think that paints a picture we can all get our heads around even though we may not have been to your particular area. Obviously there are different stories in different parts of the country, but you gave a very insightful snapshot of what you believe is happening in your community.

Mr HAASE: I am mightily impressed with your submission and your delivery. When were you in Karratha?

Ms Findlater-Smith : From 1985 to 1988 I was a shipping master at Karratha.

Mr HAASE: I lived there for 20 years.

Ms Findlater-Smith : It is a wonderful place to live. I loved Karratha.

Mr HAASE: Yes, beautiful. Do you have any suggestions as to how we may progress in a practical way to have the outcomes you suggest in your submission? You suggest primarily more support for towns and less advantageous benefits for those flying in flying out. Do you have any suggestions for legislation or regulations that may change this practice?

Ms Findlater-Smith : You could do it in one stroke—cut out the 100 per cent tax rebate on fly in, fly out. If there is no tax benefit the mining companies will think of another way.

Mr HAASE: Do you have in your mind any idea of what the companies might do—those notorious bean counters?

Ms Findlater-Smith : I think they would have to take another look at what they are doing and how they are doing it, and perhaps look to re-establishing a more stable workforce in some of these towns. The difficulty is that it is very advantageous to do what they are doing. There is a place for fly in, fly out; I have no doubt about that. If there is a very short-term project such as laying a railway line or laying pipelines, I do not have any problem with fly in, fly out. It makes a lot of sense. It is the impact on the established towns that is the big issue—not in the remote areas where there is nothing and they will go away leaving, as they say, only a small footprint. It is what they are doing to the towns that exist. That is what we have to look at and see what we can do to support those towns in developing other ways of becoming established communities so that the impact of fly in, fly out is not as important and they do not have to be used as bases for these camps. Give them something else.

They used to talk about a university in the Pilbara. There is a TAFE in Karratha, but that is about all. It is frightening when you hear that they fly in, fly out cleaners at the high school because they cannot do it any other way. Tax is probably the way to go—a better tax deal for people living there but not such a good tax deal for the mining companies to fly in, fly out.

Mr HAASE: You would be aware that the taxation zone rebate is paid to fly in, fly out workers and residential workers alike.

Ms Findlater-Smith : Yes, I am. That zone rebate is not a great amount. The fly in, fly out people have no costs at all. All they have to do is get themselves to the airport and then everything is taken care of. As you would be aware, the airfare from Karratha to Perth costs $800 each way. That is a lot of money if you live there and you are not subsidised.

Mr HAASE: Have you thought of the problem of the very high cost of accommodation because of the high cost of building, and if there was any increase in the available housing stock how that would potentially devalue the capital value of the existing housing?

Ms Findlater-Smith : Yes, it would have an impact. I do appreciate that. I know it costs twice as much to build a house in the north-west as it does in Perth. There are going to be some losers and some winners, unfortunately. There needs to be something that encourages people to settle there, to become part of the community and not just working for a mining company or working for the government. You can only do that by giving benefits to encourage people not only to go there but to stay there. Everything is expensive. A very ordinary hotel room is $460 a night. No-one goes there for tourism anymore because they cannot get accommodation. It is a bit hard.

Mr HAASE: Are you aware of Premier Colin Barnett's vision for Pilbara cities? He has an idea that Karratha would possibly have a population of 50,000 by 2020. Of course there is a great deal of effort going into making that a high proportion residential population, and that is requiring diversity. It is an uphill battle but a great deal of effort is being put in by the Barnett government right now to encourage that. The old days of Sir Charles Court and the creation of Karratha in the first instance, with great taxation concessions, may be a solution that we can reapply today.

Ms Findlater-Smith : It could be done. I have seen the population projections for Growing the Pilbara 50,000 in 2020. It also grows fly in, fly out people and a lot of that 50,000 are fly in, fly out—they are not permanent residents.

Mr HAASE: Thank you Margaret—that is a valuable contribution.

CHAIR: Margaret, if I could ask a question in relation to some of your membership from farming backgrounds. Can you give us a bit of a snapshot of what issues you are seeing in terms of social stresses and family issues?

Ms Findlater-Smith : Yes. The big issues in farming areas are fuel, education and lack of medical facilities—so access to hospitals, the need to go to large regional centres or cities to get any sort of treatment and the lack of rural doctors. It is a huge issue for women, particularly women giving birth and who have to go to a large centre if there is no local hospital or the hospital has become a nursing home. Often they are away from their families. It impacts also on Indigenous women who are out of their communities, not giving birth in their land. So women do it tough. While things are starting to improve on the farm, the towns are dying. As you would know, some of the Riverina towns are dying because they have not got water. The water is being diverted. Look at towns like Leeton and small places like Gilgandra who are suffering greatly: the rice crop is no longer there, the towns have not got decent broadband, they have not got many facilities. We should be really encouraging these people to stay in the country because we need population outside the big cities.

Mr CROOK: I have a comment along the lines of what you are talking about, Margaret. I agree totally with you with respect to health services and the like. People do not leave country towns because the roads are no good. They leave because there is no hospital and there is no education and there are not all the other things that are focused around such communities.

Ms Findlater-Smith : And there are no banks.

Mr CROOK: I think you are spot on with that. The other point I want to raise is one that Barry raised. It is to do with the Pilbara Cities project in the west. I think it needs to be a broader picture, not just one that is focused on Karratha. I think all of those regional towns need to be really kicked along for the very reason that you mentioned in your last bit of commentary.

Ms Findlater-Smith : Kalgoorlie is having the same problem.

Mr CROOK: Exactly. I live in Kalgoorlie and fortunately we have got a pretty good amenity. But the Royal Flying Doctor Service still flies two patients a day—it's '1.8 patients'—out of the regional hospital. So there is still that drift to the city.

Ms Findlater-Smith : There are very small rural communities in Western Australia where suddenly a mine has appeared down the road and the town butcher closes because they will not buy meat from him and there is nothing in the town that is used apart from the local electrician, who might get a call out once. They do not use local services. The people are there, the mines are there and the workers are there but the town is not benefiting at all. There are a lot of small communities in Queensland and Western Australia with problems like that.

CHAIR: I want to follow that up. In the area that I come from there has been substantial mining for many decades. There is this enormous explosion of activity—and potential activity—that is occurring now and in some communities they are developing town camps, in a sense, for people to drive in and drive out and there is this issue of whether the mining company will use the local community for access to goods and produce et cetera. Have you had any circumstances, given those issues that you have just raised about the butcher—and the baker and the candlestick maker—not being used by the mining companies, where questions have been raised with the companies themselves? What sort of interaction is occurring at a community level to say, 'We welcome you but we would like you to become part of our community and use our community'?

Ms Findlater-Smith : I think town community organisations do try very hard. The mines try—there is no doubt about it. I think the mining companies want to do something for the town but there is the difficulty of the transient population and the long working hours. I do not know what happened to an eight-hour day. They are working 12 hours a day and they are doing it for eight days at a time. That is a big ask, as you have got no time to do anything else. I think that the sheer size of the camps probably makes it difficult to source of lot of things locally, particularly in small country towns, which depend very much on food being trucked in anyhow. But in areas where there are facilities that they could use, they use big suppliers and big organisations like Serco, who service all of these mining camps and the detention centres. They are huge. They have the buying power. They have the facilities and they can walk in and do it, whereas maybe a small town might find it hard to get geared up to provide that. So they find that they are just an adjunct and they go along in the same old way and they gradually shrink as the population gets older because no-one new is coming into town.

CHAIR: Thank you very much. That was excellent evidence, and the submission was very good. Thank you for taking the time to come here. There will be a copy of Hansard sent to you and if you have any corrections please let us know. If you have any further information on this issue given the line of questioning you might like to follow up with us.

Ms Findlater-Smith : I might suggest if you are going to Karratha—and I hope you are going to Karratha—that you talk to the Soroptimist club of Karratha, who have put in an excellent submission on what happens in their town. Also you should talk to the Mayor of Port Hedland, who is a woman and can give you some very good information. They would be excellent people to speak to.

CHAIR: Thanks for that.

Resolved (on motion by Mr Crook):

That this committee authorises publication of the transcript of the evidence given before it at public hearing this day.

Committee adjourned at 10:36