Sky’s the limit for our FIFO mine jockeys

IF YOU could live anywhere in the world, would it be close to work?

For those working in coal or gas projects - whether in Queensland, New South Wales or elsewhere - this is the question miners grapple with.

If the billions pumped into the state and national economies from mining is to keep flowing, their expertise is needed because small, isolated regions cannot supply it all themselves.

But in choosing to live potentially thousands of kilometres away from their workplace, their earnings are fed back into their "home" region, not where they might spend most of their time toiling away.

For the Bowen and Surat Basins, to the west of Rockhampton and Toowoomba respectively, this shadow populace has a tremendous impact on councils forced to cater for the ebb and flow of this human traffic.

It is not uncommon in Central Queensland towns like Coppabella and Middlemount - suburbs which sprouted to support mining - to have up to eight out of 10 workers living beyond its borders.

In more established towns like Moranbah and Blackwater, the figure sits closer to one-third.

The number of these workers is growing as more coal mines are developed.

BHP Billiton Mitsubishi Alliance is already assessing applications for a 1000-strong fly-in workforce commuting to Central Queensland from Brisbane and Cairns.

In the Surat Basin, the use of outside workers is growing, but so far remains in its infancy.

Teams drive or fly in to work on rural sites, developing gas wells and infrastructure to feed liquid energy to Gladstone's refineries.

The Queensland Government's latest figures showed FIFO or "non-resident" workers in the Surat increased by 2020 from 2011 to 2012, while the number of permanent residents went up by about 1000.

In the Bowen Basin, 4000 new fly-in workers headed in and out throughout 2012, while just 2000 made it their home.

This growth is a fate which could have been shared by northern New South Wales, another prospective gas field, before legislation was put in place earlier this month to limit development.

Tensions have built in Queensland's booming mine areas - some locals see these visiting workers as outsiders, and workers see their time in regional Queensland as a break from rules they follow at home.

But the workers are needed and will come only if they have the choice of deciding where they and their families will live.

They cannot be expected to uproot their networks and move to a far-flung destination any more than a long-time local of a community can be expected to enjoy seeing their community diluted by temporary arrivals.

Companies are becoming more flexible to workers' requests, but cannot indefinitely provide infrastructure that should be delivered by governments.

To land in the crosshairs of the mining game can prove difficult for regional towns - they must often choose between the pains of growth or the pains of decline.

As the emerging gas industry begins to boom in the Surat and the coal industry stabilises, the need for these workers is not going away, nor are the issues they cause in the community.

Asking workers to choose a mining town over a home town will never be easy, but whether these issues become better or worse will depend on what miners, communities and governments can do.

So far, it definitely has not been enough.

Percentage of FIFO/DIDO workforce
Percentage of FIFO/DIDO workforce

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