Ladies, The Mining Boom Needs You!


Surprise, surprise, the mining industry wants us! Just like during World War Two, when there was a shortage of labour, the blokes have remembered that they need women. The big miners have had serious difficulties recruiting female workers despite the very high salaries on offer — maybe because the types of jobs they are offering aren’t what people want.

The current model for most mining development sites is the fly in, fly out (FIFO) model, which puts miners, usually male singles, into hostel style accommodation. Employers have no real need to build local towns for communities with amenities or services. Where once our big outback mineral developments established and then left behind company-built family type accommodation and services, now local towns are gutted by the influx of temporary workers; local families are driven away as rents and services become too dear for non-miners’ use.

The long hours and away-from-home male culture FIFO entrenches are unattractive to women and families. Therefore, it is odd that the mining industry’s plea to government to help remedy the lack of women workers focuses on services, such as childcare. Even high pay is probably not enough to attract more women, or retain them, given the macho cultures of local life and workplaces.

The Australian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy (AUSIMM) blithely ignores these wider problems when it proclaims a "Lack of Flexible Childcare a Major Obstacle for Women in Mining":

"Women are viewed as a largely untapped labour pool, accounting for only 18 per cent of the mining workforce, compared with 42 per cent of the total Australian workforce. The numbers of women in non traditional mining roles is particularly low, with women comprising only 3 per cent of the site based workforce."

Their release goes on about the need for more childcare funding in the towns — but ignores basic factors, such as the lack of family accommodation or its prohibitive cost. Even if childcare services were provided, staffing would be impossible because workers’ wages in the industry are far too low for them to afford to pay local rents.

Getting more women into the mining industry may work briefly for younger, childless, probably unattached women who are prepared, like some men, to become FIFO workers. Perhaps they could cope with the long shifts and macho work cultures — but it may not be a desirable work environment. Even younger workers may already have partners and children who may not be able, or willing, to let FIFO deprive them of a female presence.

Some men like time away from home and choose FIFO but the hours are long, and the conditions physically and mentally demanding. The travel schedules add further discomfort, ensuring periodic disconnects from close relatives and friends and the interpersonal issues that result. In sum, these jobs, and much of the mining boom, seem to represent some of the worst aspects of exploitation of human capital. All of which are assumed to be assuaged by the high pay.

Is that what workers want? Obviously not, as even not enough local men do. The rates of migration to Perth and beyond are not high. Even the unemployed under pressure to move and get jobs fail to take them up. Nearby Indigenous groups also refuse. Local Indigenous people, I have been told, quite reasonably often don’t want to work in projects they feel damages their country.

Media, particularly the News Ltd publications, have taken a prurient interest in FIFO sex workers, who are probably the only ones who can afford to offer their services locally. At least, if sex work is legal, their presence will reduce the rates of sexually transmitted infections, as they are usually more careful than amateurs.

On the one hand, the industry and Government put pressure on the speeding sector of our two-speed economy, grabbing the short-term possibilities of growth in exports to make big bucks for the companies involved. On the other, the industry’s short-term cash grab may not be seen by others as quite so admirable. What’s more, Gina, Twiggy and Clive’s political games may not endear them to their potential workforce.

And yet they want more women to go there?

As a general proposition, I support the AUSIMM plea for more affordable child-care. The real problem, however, is evident to those of us familiar with the mining industry and AUSIMM recognises it too:

"Beyond economic considerations, the failure of our child-care policies to support women’s aspirations to partake of the rewards of the mining boom, or to participate in non traditional roles such as the police force, firefighting and defence has a clear impact on equity."

The main problem in these male dominated areas is that work conditions and cultures continue to reflect the time availability and attitudes of (male) workers who are rarely expected to take on the primary care responsibilities for family members. The types of shifts and assumptions about availability don’t work for women (or many men) who want to have an appropriate balance between their paid work and their other roles in life.

Types and timing of shifts, lack of flexibility, as well as often excessive hours in anyone’s terms, make these jobs less attractive than often lower paid, more civilised occupations. There is also evidence that aspects of these types of jobs, including long shifts, can damage health and people’s judgement of danger and good practice. We don’t allow pilots to fly long hours because of these kinds of risks.

Similar arguments about the lack of women in senior executive jobs also fail to understand that gender divisions in the workplace may reflect bad job design and ineffective use of talent. The types of jobs on offer in the mining boom may be relics of a time and industry structure that is well and truly out of date — and dangerous. The industry, together with other macho designed areas, needs to reform its workplace cultures to reflect workers’ social, rather than just economic, needs.


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