Enough With The FIFO Moral Panic


The fly-in fly-out (FIFO) model for workers in outback mining areas has been much critiqued and commented upon. I recently covered the gendered employment issues, exploring why only 3 per cent of onsite miners were women. I speculated that few women would want the jobs because of the working patterns.

Long shift hours, barracks life, and macho work culture seemed to be unattractive to anyone but the odd footloose and fancy-free female looking for adventure. It would have little appeal unless workers had few family ties or could cope with extensive time in a donga. In fact, the FIFO model seems to be the epitome of bad macho workplace design.

So it’s unsurprising that other FIFO media coverage would soon focus on what happens when men are "deprived" of their community links. A female deficit is not new — historical debates abound on the need for the right type of women as a civilising factor. This is illustrated in the well-used quote from Caroline Chisholm that what the young colony needed was more god’s police and fewer damned whores.

This judgmental view of two archetypes of women in the nineteenth century reappeared in the twentieth century in debates about migrant men on projects like the Snowy, and has survived well into the new millenium.

Unsurprisingly, there is evidence the FIFO model is being used by other services, including sex workers. The trade has been highlighted recently after a QLD sex worker won her discrimination case against a motel owner in the mining town of Moranbah who barred her because of her occupation. The case made quite clear that the problem was not what happened in the room, but her job.

The Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal (QCAT) ruled the owners of the motel breached the Anti-Discrimination Act by denying a legal sex worker a room. The Gold Coast woman, identified only as GK, had stayed at the motel 17 times in two years until the property’s owners discovered in 2010 she was bringing clients to her room. They then banned her from staying there.

The discrimination ruling could have broader implications for motels and hotels in Queensland’s mining boom towns as the shift to FIFO workforces has also fuelled a FIFO sex trade. The national sex workers’ association, the Scarlet Alliance, says GK’s victory paves the way for other sex workers in Queensland. "This is definitely a win for sex workers because it sends a clear message discrimination against them will not be accepted," the Alliance’s chief executive Janelle Fawkes said.

Many commentators have asked whether these incomers are the source of increased sexually transmitted infections (STIs) — the classic moral panic that occurs whenever the issue of sex workers is raised in public. Yes, there has been an increase in notifications of STIs, but who knows why? Maybe the influx of infected workers is responsible, or the unpaid sex they enjoy when home on long weekends. Why assume it’s the sex workers?

The somewhat sympathetic coverage of the issue by Caroline Overington in the Australian shows the tensions:

"’Rebecca’ has been a sex worker for 16 years. Now in her mid-30s, she has worked in most of the regional areas, including the mining towns, and agrees that it’s lucrative. "But the way I see it, the community also benefits. The motel owner gets a booking. The client might bring a nice bottle of champagne, so that’s money for the bottle shop. There are taxis for me to get in from the airport, and for clients to visit me. The newspaper benefits from the ads.

Rebecca might see fly-in, fly-out sex work as a "win-win" for the towns but not everyone is so happy with the arrangement… while the arrival of the FIFO prostitute has excited moral panic in some quarters, a policeman in Karratha said they didn’t tend to cause trouble. "There are a few working girls coming through. They don’t cause much trouble, and the customers don’t either. It’s all pretty low key."

Medical bodies in Western Australia and Queensland have raised concerns about the growing rate of sexually transmitted diseases – gonorrhea and syphilis – in some mining areas. But Australian Medical Association Queensland president Dr Richard Kidd is reluctant to blame Australian sex workers. "The local industry is well regulated and they do great education — ‘if the condom’s not on, it’s not on’, that kind of thing…"

Despite the wide evidence of sex workers’ good condom use, politics and prejudice means the situation may well deteriorate. What’s also widely proven is that the more legitimate the sex workers’ jobs are, the more likely they are to follow good health practices. There are moves in WA to tighten controls over sex workers and some suggestions of similar changes in NSW.

Currently NSW has the least criminalising system. Restrictions tend to be based on locations of services rather than the individuals practicing sex work. The result is that there is both very high condom compliance and low levels of STI transmission.

The other states have a variety of systems with registrations of sex workers and mandatory health checks that do not produce better results. In fact, these forms of regulation mean that those sex workers who do not register may be then too scared to access the necessary occupational health support services, or even carry multiple condoms.

But news reports, such as this May story from AAP, tend to emphasise the benefits of the status quo:

"There’s no link between sexually transmitted infections and sex workers in fly-in fly-out towns, a federal parliamentary committee has heard. Appearing before the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Regional Australia in Sydney on Friday, the body representing workers in the sex industry said many were also part of the FIFO contingent.

"Sex workers generally tend to be quite transient in their work, so touring or travelling for their work is a historic practice and happens a lot," Scarlet Alliance CEO Janelle Fawkes said. However, there was no evidence of a link between sex workers and the incidence of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) like HIV in FIFO communities like mining towns, the alliance told the committee. Policy officer Zahra Stardust said sex workers had lower rates of STIs and higher rates of condom use than the broader community.


Critics also assume that that sex workers, including those from overseas, are exploited and work against their will. Claims that FIFO sex workers from Asia are controlled by crime bosses are widespread. The ABC story below tells both sides, but many others, including Overington’s report in The Australian, report only the police’s view.

"There are fears the mining boom is leading to an increase in the exploitation of women in the sex industry. Increasingly, sex workers are travelling to Australia’s remote mining communities hoping to cash in on the lonely, mostly male workforce. But local police officer Inspector Paul Biggin says while sex workers have also been a major beneficiary of the boom, there are growing concerns about women being brought in from overseas and exploited by criminals.

"A lot of these young women, they are vulnerable, they have very poor education, they’re putting a lot of pressure on legalised brothels in Queensland," Inspector Biggin said… "It’s then when they’re working illegally, or being controlled through, organised crime." Inspector Biggin said while the numbers of women are hard to quantify, many are coming from Asia.

However, Jules Kim, the migration project manager at Scarlet Alliance, said it was "very dangerous" to use those as indicators of exploitation. "Using ‘doesn’t speak English’ as an indicator would not be applied to any other profession and it seems like it’s being used …Ms Kim says the extent of the problem in mining communities has been exaggerated."

The prejudices are long term as the following UNSW Social Research Brief by Ally Daniel from the Scarlet Alliance shows:

"Sex workers are a group vilified, discriminated against and without many of the legal and social protections most people take for granted yet since the beginning of the HIV epidemic, sex workers in Australia have enjoyed extremely low rates of HIV transmission. Peer education and sex worker advocacy at individual and systemic levels are necessary to maintain these low rates of transmission."

"Criminalisation and legalisation frameworks generate laws and policies based on moral or religious grounds and as a result, hinder public health objectives," she finishes. As the debate around FIFO sex workers continues, it’s a conclusion worth heeding.

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