Crime Talk, FIFO workers and Cultural Conflict on the Mining Boom Frontier

By Kerry Carrington, Russell Hogg, Alison McIntosh and John Scott

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Australia is experiencing an unprecedented expansion in mining due to intense demand from Asian economies thirsty for Australia’s non-renewable resources, with over $260 billion worth of capital investment currently in the pipeline (BREE 10). The scale of the present boom, coupled with the longer-term intensification of competitiveness in the global resources sector, is changing the very nature of mining operations in Australia. Of particular note is the increasingly heavy reliance on a non-resident workforce, currently sourced from within Australia but with some recent proposals for projects to draw on overseas guest workers. This is no longer confined, as it once was, to remote, short-term projects or to exploration and construction phases of operations, but is emerging as the preferred industry norm. Depending upon project location, workers may either fly-in, fly-out (FIFO) or drive-in, drive-out (DIDO), the critical point being that these operations are frequently undertaken in or near established communities.

Drawing primarily on original fieldwork in one of Australia’s mining regions at the forefront of the boom, this paper explores some of the local impacts of new mining regimes, in particular their tendency to undermine collective solidarities, promote social division and fan cultural conflict. Rising housing and living costs, heavy vehicle congestion on major transport corridors, intense pressure on tourist and visitor accommodation and other services also undermine the viability of local tourist operations. Many communities are undergoing profound economic and social upheaval. Rising local crime and disorder constitute a visible symbol of the unwelcome effects of change. Beyond the often unquantifiable impacts on actual crime levels, there is the social and psychological role of local ‘crime talk’ as a vehicle for expressing widely shared anxieties about the erosion of the long-term sustainability of mining communities. As we will endeavour to show, the influx of FIFO in large numbers almost certainly (and unsurprisingly) increases local crime problems, as it does a wide range of other social stresses in these communities. But local crime talk centred on the actual and perceived crime problems introduced by FIFO also serves as a powerful means for those who otherwise feel powerless and silenced in the face of overwhelming forces to ventilate their resentments and frustrations.

Project and Method
This essay draws upon original research undertaken for an Australian Research Council Discovery project on masculinity and violence in rural settings. The research did not set out to study the mining boom or the impact of non-resident workers (NRWs). Rather, it sought more generally to investigate reasons for the apparently higher rates of violent morbidity and mortality amongst men in rural and regional Australia. We used a mixed methods approach, triangulating a range of quantitative measures of violent injury (such as violent crimes, motor vehicle accidents and firearm injuries) and other injury surveillance data with qualitative field research. The team performed wide-ranging analyses of existing databases for socio-demographics, crime, mortality, morbidity, injury and accident data across more than 40 Local Government Areas within rural New South Wales (NSW), Queensland (Qld) and Western Australia (WA), generating 12 data reports. From this data, three local government areas (LGA) with measures indicating high rates of violence were selected to carry out field work. The selected LGAs each contained a number of communities.

Over a two-year period we conducted field research in these communities, interviewing a purposive sample of 142 civic leaders, community representatives and justice, social and medical service providers. Given the sensitive nature of doing such research in small rural localities (2,000-16,000 population), protecting the anonymity of respondents was an over-riding ethics requirement. Because our respondents were readily identifiable from their roles in the community we have used pseudonyms to refer to both the regions and towns involved in the study.

This paper draws primarily on our fieldwork in ‘Armstrong’, a remote region of Western Australia and ‘Pembleton’ the major town within it.1

In Armstrong, a local government area dramatically affected by mining expansion over the last decade, we conducted interviews with 38 respondents drawn from a purposive sample of community leaders, elected representatives and community organisations, and justice, health, medical and social service providers, including the local magistrate and chief of police. These information-rich participants were identified through websites and through community services and telephone directories. We sought to interview representatives of the mining companies operating in the region but they declined our repeated requests to participate in the study. We used a semi-structured interview schedule. Questions explored perspectives on rural men’s health and wellbeing, men’s violence and related policy issues. At the end of interview sessions, participants completed a basic survey which allowed overall demographic characteristics to be assessed.2

Armstrong: The setting
Mining booms have punctuated Australian history and have contributed significantly to population growth, economic development and the establishment of townships, transport networks and other infrastructure in regional Australia (Blainey). Global increases in demand for energy and minerals have recently led to the rapid expansion of the resources sector in Australia, resulting in an ongoing, unparalleled mining boom (Cleary, ‘Minefield’ vii; Petkova et al. 211; Syed and Penny).

The Armstrong region is undergoing rapid expansion due to the mining boom. Iron-ore is the main commodity extracted from open-cut mines in the region. Transport, construction, aviation and maritime operations related to mining activity are the other main sources of employment in the region. Few purpose-built communities have been constructed since the 1960s, as it has become more economical for resource companies to shift to commute operations, instead of constructing permanent communities that require maintenance and on-going capital overheads (Storey 135). The exploration, extraction, transport, processing and maintenance stages of mining and related infrastructure projects (such as road, rail, airport and port construction) have all become increasingly reliant on NRWs (Beach and Cliff; Carrington et al., ‘Resource Boom Underbelly’; Carrington et al., Submission; Gillies et al.; Houghton; Storey).

The proportion of NRWs in a resource town population may fluctuate markedly, depending on construction projects and shutdowns, or labour lay-offs caused by declining product price or project completion. Estimates of NRWs provided by the Armstrong local council suggest that they regularly comprise around 50 percent of the effective local population. Like other parts of regional Australia, NRWs housed in work camps have become a proxy resident population, sometimes rivaling in number, or even exceeding, full-time residents in established host communities (ABS; OESR). Everything points to huge increases in numbers of NRWs in the immediate future (NRSET; OESR). We estimate there were around 150,000-200,000 NRWs working in the mining sector in mid-2011 (Carrington et al., Submission).

The median age in the Pembleton population is 31 years, six years lower than the national median age of 37 years. Compared to the rest of Australia, Pembleton has a heavy reliance on a single industry employer—the resources industry. The proportion of people employed in Pembleton’s resource industries increased by 45 percent over the intercensal period from 2001 to 2006. In resource boom towns, labour force participation rates are usually high, as exemplified by the 72 percent participation rate for Pembleton in the 2006 Census in comparison with the national rate of 60 percent. Unemployment rates in 2006 (2.2 percent and 5.2 percent, respectively, for Pembleton and Australia) also reflected the robust nature of local industries and job opportunities. The tight labour situation for resource industry employers in remote areas has been accompanied by elevated incomes. For example, almost half (49 percent) the resident workforce in Pembleton earned at least $1,000 per week, compared with a national total of 20 percent. The gap was greater for people earning $2,000 or more per week, with 16 percent and 4 percent, respectively, for Pembleton and Australia. Not surprisingly, in Pembleton a greater proportion of males than females received high incomes compared with elsewhere in Australia.

Partly because of the global resources boom, many of the residents of resource towns are comparatively new arrivals. Census results show that, in 2006, many people had moved to Pembleton within the previous five years. In fact, only about half (53 percent) had lived at the same address one year previously and only 27 percent at the time of the 2001 Census. Elsewhere in Australia, 79 percent of people had lived at the same address for at least 12 months and 58 percent were resident at their 2006 Census night address for more than five years. The population mobility that characterises Pembleton and other resource-boom towns reflects the volatility of the global resources sector. Employment in extractive industries traditionally has a strong male bias. The male-to-female ratio in Pembleton is way out of kilter with the Australian norm. Census point-in-time data for 2006 indicated six men for every five women but given the chronic under-reporting of NRWs in the Census and the fact that the NRWs are not included in these statistics, the gender imbalance is considerably greater.

The growing reliance on NRWs is but one dimension of new mining operations, which now generally involve a continuous 24/7 production process involving 12-hour shifts and block rosters (for example, two weeks on and one week off). Accommodation for NRWs in work camps or other single person quarters during work cycles is usually provided by subcontractors. While work camps are sometimes located in remote areas, increasingly work camps are being constructed adjacent to existing communities associated with long-established traditional agricultural and/or mining activities. It is in these communities, where camps house large numbers of NRWs, that FIFO practices have become highly contentious.

During rostered time off, NRWs usually return to their permanent places of residence, which are usually in one of the State capital cities—Perth, Melbourne, Sydney or Brisbane—but which can also be in distant regional locations, or overseas. Work camps are typically constructed of rows of ‘dongas’, with air conditioned sleeping and en suite facilities. Camps provide meals and other daily living requirements such as laundry services and transportation as well as recreational facilities, and often include a ‘wet mess’ that serves alcohol. As many as 8,000 NRWs were accommodated in camps on the fringes of Pembleton at any one time. There were eight camps in the region, all with liquor licenses and facilities for a ‘wet mess’. The size of the non-resident workforce has been forecasted to rise substantially in this locality and in the wider region, reaching 37,000 by 2015 (Waller).3 Each camp accommodates between two and three thousand workers, with 80-90 percent estimated to be male. For this reason, they are usually referred to as ‘men’s camps’, but some mining companies prefer to call them ‘villages’.

Figure 1: Typical work camp (Photo: Alison McIntosh)

Figure 1: Typical work camp (Photo: Alison McIntosh)

The Sustainability of Communities on the Mining Frontier
According to the US academic economist, Robert Reich, the age of democratic capitalism has given way to the age of ‘supercapitalism’ (Reich). A phase in the development of capitalism that has witnessed massively intensified global economic competitiveness, supercapitalism has, according to Reich, dramatically empowered people as individuated economic actors (investors, consumers, etc.) whilst eroding their capacities as democratic citizens. We are in many ways being strengthened within the narrow channels of our economic lives at the same time as our forms of collective life and public institutions are being weakened. The resources sector is presently operating at the frontier of supercapitalism’s transformative reach over Australia’s economy, society and politics. The term ‘resource curse’ has been coined to describe the potentially distorting effects of mining booms in resource-rich nations and regions. Short-term profit maximisation can lead to the hollowing out of existing forms of community and social life: for example, the demands of the production process may tear at the fabric of family and associational life in small communities, inflationary effects on cost of living (notably housing affordability) can drive people out of communities, and mining labour needs and high wages plunder workers from other occupations essential to long-term community sustainability. A critical aspect is the potential impact of mining, a volatile industry notorious for boom-bust cycles, on that diverse economic base of regions and communities which is the key to long-term sustainability.

The non-resident worker—who accepts a truncated family and social life in exchange for short-term economic rewards—has in many ways become an emblematic figure in relation to the impact of supercapitalism on everyday life. The rapidly expanding reliance on a non-resident workforce is the most conspicuous element in the overall intensification of the labour process, which also involves continuous 24/7 production, the growth of contract labour at the expense of traditional employment relationships, and concerted efforts to minimise the intrusion on productivity of extraneous, non-economic factors such as the human solidarities and commitments arising from family, community and trade union organisation. This carries major implications for the sustainability of those regional communities at the frontier of resource extraction which are, or rather were, rooted in these solidarities. It impacts upon quality of life (including housing affordability, infrastructure, services and levels of violence, conflict and disorder) in communities that overnight are made to play host to large influxes of transient workers living in work camps or occupying every spare hotel and motel room or inch of space in caravan parks and camping areas.

Mining towns typically have a male dominated culture (Sharma) because employment in the mining and energy sectors remains highly masculinised. The work camp arrangements, block rosters of 12-hour shifts, lack of part-time work and limited ready access to child-care along with perceptions of a masculine ‘frontier’ culture enhance the ‘blokey’ culture of Pembleton. Such gender imbalances also work to heighten the vulnerability of women, children and youth and erode perceptions of community safety (Carrington and Pereira; Carrington et al., ‘Resource Boom Underbelly’; Jefferson and Preston; Neame and Heenan).

The rapidly shifting socio-demographics, and especially the sudden influx of young, cashed up, single male populations, disrupts the social ecology and gender dynamics of communities (ABS; Murray and Peetz 23-25). The effective local population may massively increase overnight as a predominantly male itinerant labour force moves in (Lozeva and Martinova; Murray and Peetz). Such unprecedented population increases place a considerable burden on local services, which are funded on the basis of the permanent resident population. It results in soaring housing costs and other local costs of living (Haslam Mckenzie et al.). An ever-decreasing permanent resident workforce in turn undermines sustainable community development based on economic diversification (Gallegos). Residents in some mining communities are now even excluded from lodging job applications to work locally in the mines.4 This in turn fosters social divisions and tensions between NRWs and residents who see themselves as bearing the burdens of the mining boom whilst most of the benefits go to NRWs and companies with no commitment to local communities (Carrington and Hogg).

Over time, these impacts can undermine the long-term sustainability of affected regional communities.5 There are also significant concerns in relation to the impact on the long-term health and well-being of NRWs and their families. These are issues we unexpectedly stumbled upon in the course of our research on men and violence in rural Australia (Carrington et al., ‘Resource Boom Underbelly’).

The erosion of community structure in these remote regions jeopardises existing forms of tourism and deters the development or investment in such new forms of tourism as marine tourism, eco-tourism and Indigenous tourism. Pembleton, a case in point, used to be an attractive tourist destination. Local tourist attractions include fishing, marine sports, sailing, sightseeing, fossicking, bush-walking, rock art, Aboriginal Art and cultural heritage. Its settlement and continuing growth are now dependent upon a range of mining, processing and transportation activities and developments associated with resource sector projects. Agriculture and tourism are comparatively minor industries, the latter having been severely disrupted over recent years due to chronic accommodation shortages and inflated costs of travel as a direct result of increased resource sector activity in the region. So the once attractive coastal region is no longer an affordable, convenient stopover for back-packers, the ‘grey nomads’, caravaners, campers and out-back adventurers touring Australia’s western coastline. Of the local leisure and tourist activities, the only ones to benefit from the influx of NRWs appear to be fishing, adventure sports and off-road four wheel driving, attractive on rostered days off, along with a ‘slab of beer’. The only tours operating during our field research were of the open-cut mining operations, which sold pieces of iron ore as souvenirs. The National Tourism Alliance claims, in its submission to the Australian Parliamentary Inquiry into the impact of FIFO/DIDO practices on regional Australia, that FIFO operations are adversely impacting on regional tourism, which accounts for around 42 percent of all operators. The submission points to staff shortages, especially in recruiting and retaining chefs, waiters, kitchen-hands, house-keeping staff and tourism managers, who can ill-afford to pay the high rents and other costs of living in mining communities. The submission also highlights significant impacts relating to aviation capacity, pricing, availability, time-tabling and cost of airfares, which deter tourists and tourism operators. It concludes that ‘Whilst capacity may appear to be growing in certain areas overall, it is often at the cost of air capacity into a tourism area, leaving a net reduction in tourism seats’ (National Tourism Alliance 3). The critical loss of accommodation infrastructure available for tourist operators was highlighted as an issue of paramount concern:

Tourism is losing accommodation and product capacity as bed stock is taken over by corporate and FIFO along with accompanying price rises. In some cases, destinations have become virtually off-limits to leisure tour operators as all available accommodation has been contracted to mining operators, for up to 6 to 10 years in some cases. (National Tourism Alliance 4)

Figure 2: Visible impacts of the accommodation crisis (Photo: Alison McIntosh)

Figure 2: Visible impacts of the accommodation crisis (Photo: Alison McIntosh)

An antidote to the erosion of community sustainability and economic diversification is to attract more women into the mining industry, more families into the community, more Indigenous workers into the industry, and more diverse visitor populations such as tourists and industries such as tourism. In recent times tourism has of course offered greater employment opportunities for Aboriginal people. Although tourism is not without its ambiguities, in that it can feed stereotypes of people and place in which the Indigenous presence is limited to certain roles closely linked to the imagined ‘authentic’ outback experience, mining has offered few such economic opportunities. While Fortescue Metals has led an initiative to increase the proportion of Indigenous employees in the mining industry, local mines rarely employ local Indigenous workers at all (Guerin and Guerin). In Pembleton the prospect of establishing viable Indigenous enterprises appeared dispiriting, as the local Aboriginal art and craft shops in a nearby township on the main highway were deserted and in some instances derelict.

Nor did the prospect of attracting more women, children and families to the region appear good. There have already been considerable efforts to attract women into non-traditional mining occupations. However, it appears that the preference for a non-resident workforce in this region may be reversing the hard-won gains of women entering this traditionally masculine industry. The percentage of females employed in the mining industry remains small but volatile, for example, decreasing from 15.7 percent in November 2010 to 12.6 percent in August 2011 (see Carrington et al., Submission 17). It’s not hard to see why. Spending large slabs of time away from home is hard to reconcile with maintaining a healthy work life and family life balance. The cost of housing, rental accommodation and living is a deterrent to families settling in these communities as well as to tourists and tourist operators. Additionally the lack of aesthetic appeal of ‘donga’ towns, the excessive costs of car hire and motel accommodation, transport corridors congested with over-sized trucks, four wheel drives, fast cars and fatigued workers at the end of long shifts, and lack of attractive entertainment, retail, hospitality and leisure venues all work to further erode the attraction of small rural communities to families, women and tourists. Fatalities for traffic accidents in the Armstrong region are already 2.6 times the Western Australian 10-year average. Urging more tourists to drive to the region may only increase the risk of further road congestion and accidents.


Figure 3: Oversize vehicle on narrow country road (Photo: Alison McIntosh)

Urging the government to fast-track reforms and programs to address these challenges, the Tourism and Transport Forum submission to the parliamentary inquiry directly linked the ‘impact of the two-speed economy resulting from the mining boom’ to the tourism sector. The investment stampede in mining is driven by short-term super-profits for the few, which may come at the expense of manufacturing and tourism, sectors which offer the prospect of more modest but longer term prosperity and sustainability for the many who live in the regions (Cleary, Minefield; Cleary, Too Much Luck).

The invisibility of Aborigines in local ‘crime talk’
In the popular imagination crime is overwhelmingly associated with the city and rural communities are understood to be stable, caring, cohesive and relatively crime-free. Research in rural communities in Australia has often uncovered a tendency in local crime talk to safeguard this idealised view of rural life by externalising social problems like crime (Gray and O’Connor; Hogg and Carrington). Crime is associated with ‘outsiders’ and trouble-makers from elsewhere. This process of externalisation is not uncommonly racialised. Pembleton lacks a strong Aboriginal presence (less than three percent of the local population in 2006), in a region where Aboriginal numbers are relatively high in comparison to other remote regions of Australia. Most Aboriginal people living in the region cannot afford to reside in Pembleton; instead they live in a town an hour’s drive away, with a predominantly (80 percent) Aboriginal population (described by one participant as a ‘blackfella’s town’).

Studies of mining regions suggest that the marginal position of Aboriginal people in the wider community is reinforced by mining operations (Lockie et al.). Mining towns are generally characterised by low employment of Indigenous people because industrial relations policies tend to favour employment of people with previous mining industry experience and there are fewer opportunities for the Indigenous population to access required training for job opportunities. FIFO projects also tend to exclude Aboriginal communities from potential involvement, with pick-up points situated outside such communities (Petkova et al. 212).

In earlier research we found that in many rural communities it is common for local crime-talk to be heavily inflected by racial politics and racial divisions (Hogg and Carrington 161; Jobes et al.). Fear of crime is significant also in terms of what is not said, as well as what is said. Crime-talk in rural settings often ignores or downplays domestic violence in the non-Aboriginal community whilst highlighting Aboriginal violence and disorder (Hogg and Carrington 149). This is not to deny the reality of Aboriginal involvement in crime, both as victims and perpetrators, but rather it highlights the significance of racial politics in selectively defining crime problems in many rural settings, by elevating the crimes of some, while drawing a veil of secrecy over the crimes of others.

It is no small irony that Indigenous Australians who, historically, have been violently displaced from their lands and culture, are repeatedly characterised as a dangerous presence in the landscape from which they have been displaced (Goodall). What links Aborigines and the ‘outsiders’ who are frequently blamed for crimes in rural communities is that both fail to conform to the imagined sense of ‘community’ that pervades the rural spaces they inhabit (Cowlishaw).

Aborigines are, again with some irony, regularly relegated to the status of ‘outsiders’ in rural settings. This noted, the historic segregation of Aboriginal people on the margins of rural communities placed real limitations on their presence and visibility in many rural settings. When Aboriginal people are visible, it is all too often in relation to crime (as perpetrators), disrupting what has, until recently, been the unquestioned gemeinschaft relations of the rural social order, based on the supposed organic bonds forged in small, homogeneous communities with high levels of face-to-face recognition. The ambiguous status of Aboriginal people within the rural social order can stimulate fear, for they do not conform to the idealised images of ‘traditional’ Indigenous people, nor do they belong in the ‘white’ community. They are not part of the colonised landscape, having been significantly erased from its past and future. It is interesting that it was mainly FIFOs who represented the ‘other’ and dominated local crime talk in our case study of Pembleton.

Crime talk, FIFOs and cultural conflict in Armstrong
Conflict over land use is becoming increasingly common in rural Australia, with regular images of community blockades, the arrest of protestors and the rise of such new movements as the Lock the Gate Alliance. According to its website, the group is:

a national grassroots organisation made up of thousands of individuals and over 160 local groups who are concerned about inappropriate mining. The mission of the Lock the Gate Alliance is to protect Australia’s natural, environmental, cultural and agricultural resources from inappropriate mining and to educate and empower all Australians to demand sustainable solutions to food and energy production. (Lock the Gate Alliance)

The project approval for mining projects reliant on 100 percent NRW has also become a hotly contested source of conflict, particularly in Queensland’s Bowen Basin. Here the concerns of local communities are represented by such lobby groups as the Moranbah Action Group and the Collinsville-based Mining Communities United, formed in 2010. According to the latter’s website:

People living in Collinsville have a fire in their belly, which is why there is a sense of community identity in this town and we will not stand by and let the town suffer while it is being ravaged for profit. … We all feel that we have been overlooked & our pleas for help have been ignored. We are asking the Government, at State & Federal levels to take some positive actions & show us that we count. We need them to take action & support our communities that are being affected by the massive impact of this resource boom. We need representation that truly represents our needs as a community, rather than the needs of the Multi-Nationals – who are putting very little back into rural communities & attempting to sabotage our communities. (Mining Communities United)

In sociological terms, FIFOs are the classic ‘outsiders’ (Becker; Elias and Scotson), and they are subject to ‘crime talk’ of a kind more usually invoked in other rural settings to ‘rationalise’ a racialised politics of exclusion. Like gossip, ‘crime talk’ is a device for creating social divisions and exercising informal social control (Scott et al.). In crime talk FIFO represents more than a precarious work practice. Crime talk, which influences local perceptions of community safety and wellbeing, is symptomatic of social conflict during times of social change and upheaval. Crime talk is not strictly limited to discourses about illegality or state defined definitions of crime. On the contrary, crime talk, like gossip, is more about how local communities exercise power, cast judgement, express anxiety and draw, and redraw, social boundaries, especially in the face of perceived threats. Social ‘embeddedness’ and notions of what constitutes ‘community’ are significant in determining what activities, individuals or groups feature in crime-talk and social constructions of deviance in rural settings (Scott et al.).

FIFO is a commonly used acronym in the Armstrong region to describe NRWs. FIFO is also used as an acronym for the words ‘fit in or fuck off’, sold as a souvenir T-Shirt from one of the local Pembleton clothing stores. As Amy, one of our informants claimed, FIFO had become the shorthand for telling anyone ‘where to go’:

I think there’s been this split of the town … there’s fly-in fly-out [FIFO] and I’ve heard people say: ‘Fit-in or fuck-off’ and that’s a view that I’ve heard from people that stay in the community. So they might sense that all these FIFO workers are creating all the problems for the community and creating all these problems for them and they’ll be drinking at the pub and someone got beaten to death. (Amy, service provider)

In the above passage, Amy, who works and resides in the mining region of Armstrong, draws a link between fly-in-fly-out (FIFO) workers and social problems such as violence. One reason for little money being spent in the region is that the camps are largely self-sufficient in relation to matters like cleaning and the provisioning of food and alcohol. Everyday life is regulated in the camps under private security contracts. This creates ‘fly-over’ effects on the local economy and builds resentment among permanent residents who see local businesses suffering from higher costs without commensurate benefits. Pembleton had no butcher or baker and very few food outlets due to the difficulty of attracting retail workers in a town where weekly rents over $2000 were common.

While our research was primarily centred on violence and rural men, participants interviewed spoke extensively about ‘the community’ and the threat that FIFOs posed to the sustainability of their families, businesses and wellbeing. Stories of violence and men were used to highlight broad problems of social order in the Armstrong region. In this way, crime-talk functioned as a symbol, associated with a range of anxieties linked with social change and disruption. Crime-talk in the region was often indistinguishable from gossip, incorporating a range of social behaviours, from the obviously criminal through to the socially deviant, to anything that symbolised NRWs as a troubling presence. It was a device to distinguish and amplify what were considered to be the worst qualities, real or imagined, of FIFO workers and generalise these to the group as a whole.

Crime in Pembleton was, in the time-honoured manner, largely associated with ‘outsiders’, and FIFO workers are the quintessential outsiders. That these were urban men whose main residence was in metropolitan centres was also frequently noted. There was a strong perception among participants that FIFO cultures were anti-social and did not belong in their community.

The presence of mining operations, especially FIFO workers, made Pembleton something other than rural. One participant distinguished between a ‘bush’ town, defined by its mining industry, and a rural town, defined by agriculture. Patterns of work—FIFO, block rosters and shift work—were antithetical to the forms of stable moral and associational life characteristic of rural communities. Most participants thought the work patterns had negative impacts on the community, especially with regard to violent crime and other forms of anti-social behaviour. Ron, a service provider with links to pastoral industries, stated:

In this area, people are less inclined to participate in and contribute to the community to the same extent as would normally occur in a rural community. People work long hours but the time they have available might be limited. Their roster does provide them with time off but they’d probably generally prefer to go fishing on those days rather than [do things] for the community interest.

The general gripe against FIFOs was that they contributed nothing to ‘the community’. Mary, a service provider and recent arrival to the region, observed:

There are some FIFO workers that really play up once they get here, away from the normal responsibilities of family and city life and so indulge a little bit. So there are a few of them that give everybody else a bad name. They’re always being accused of littering and causing problems and anti-social behaviour.

The relationship between local community members and FIFOs was described as ‘us and them’. Max, a community leader, who had spent 27 years in Pembleton, observed:

They are disconnected. They are not part of our community. … What we’re seeing here now, these are not good construction workers; these are the shit at the bottom of the barrel. … They’ve just got the dribble here now and you’re seeing that time and time again in social disturbances and stuff like that.

For many participants the extravagant use of leisure time symbolised the culture of excessive consumption fostered by the work routines and big economic rewards associated with the mining industry. This invokes a trope with particular resonance in productivist rural cultures concerning the dangers of affluence and unregulated leisure. Rapidly acquired wealth and conspicuous consumption are hallmarks of urban life seen by some of our respondents to loosen moral bonds and restraints.

The extravagance of the lifestyles of miners was regularly referred to in relation to their ownership of ‘toys’, especially big boats, big four wheel drives and fast cars. Others referred to the growing market for commercial sex work (supplied partly by the local brothel, but also by FIFO sex-workers operating from stretch limos in pub car parks) and pole dancers, symbols of the moral and social decline. In terms of public life, lack of involvement in activities defined as communal—especially organised sport—was indicative of the breakdown of social life. Excessive alcohol consumption was especially emblematic of the disorder that had invaded the community, along with drugs, which locals perceived as being imported from the cities—predominantly, if not exclusively, by FIFOs. Excessive drinking and alcohol related assaults, despite being acknowledged as part of the towns’ much longer-term culture, were typically associated in their problematic forms with FIFO workers.

Figure 4: Stretch limo, courtesy bus, skimpy barmaid promo, pub (Photo: Alison McIntosh)

Figure 4: Stretch limo, courtesy bus, skimpy barmaid promo, pub (Photo: Alison McIntosh)

Local residents in Pembleton openly acknowledged the reputation of their area for ‘heavy drinking’ but it was the excessive and unregulated consumption repeatedly linked with the FIFO workers housed in the local camps that presented the problems. For instance, a local councillor stated that:

[Drinking] is still a culture here, especially with fly-in fly-outs. We find that’s the problem. They’ve left their family wherever they live; they come up for maybe two weeks on, two weeks off. That’s what they do. … We’ve always had the drinking aspect of being in [a remote region]. Most people drink more. … When you get the influx of mostly men into town, you get the increase in the violence, the disruption, the abuse, the incidences of police being involved.

Some of the local pubs provided courtesy buses to transport FIFOs from the camps to the pub at the end of their shift. Regular consumption of large amounts of alcohol and use of illicit drugs were intrinsic to the way of life—the culture—of Pembleton.

In some interviews, drunkenness, violence and fights were also linked to people’s increasing use of ecstasy and/or methamphetamines. Indeed, Pembleton police officers identified alcohol and drugs as the common denominator in most violent offences and believed that their ability to control these factors would be beneficial for law enforcement and mitigation of violence and its consequences. One experienced senior police officer we interviewed remarked:

There’s a lot of alcohol-fuelled violence up here. … When they have their days off and they’re earning a lot of money—a lot of them are quite young fellas—there’s nothing really to do with that money. Lot of it goes into the pubs and the overflow of that is that you get your violence at the end of the day. They box on at the clubs that we get called to or there are people who take advantage of the fact that people are so inebriated and give them a bit of one-two.

Fights were described to us as largely male-on-male but often not one-on-one. The police were well aware of the roles of alcohol, drug use and gender imbalance in fuelling violence:

You’ve got people who take a bit [of meth] and have a bit of alcohol and they’re all fired up and they get into a predominantly male environment where everyone’s a bit macho and then you’ve got fights … there’s 25 blokes to every female in this town so it’s very male orientated.

Although members of the local police service claimed they tried to be proactive in violence prevention, operators of licensed premises and their patrons conspired against police intervention. This was openly acknowledged in the following comment by one police officer:

I gotta say I don’t believe that most assaults are reported to us. When you talk to people around town and they say: I was down the pub the other night and there was a big punch up and then you get into work and there’s no report of it and that can be for a variety of reasons. Either the guys have let off a bit of steam and sorted it out and don’t want police intervention to resolve an issue or someone wasn’t seriously injured enough to warrant telling the police; or maybe the licenced premises are protecting their licence to an extent because they know we keep records of every time we have to attend a licensed premises to quell a disturbance.

A young resident supported this assessment and recalled a number of incidents he had been directly involved in at his local pub which involved fights with FIFOs, many of whom were contractors. As a usual rule:

If there was trouble brewing, the glares across the bar as soon as the police aren’t around: Bang! It would be on. … It’s very much us and them; they sit there, you don’t look at them or talk to them and the only words really exchanged are: Fuck you, let’s fight. … Fucking FIFOs, it’s them.

The police recognised that they were dealing with ‘blokey-type blokes’ within a mining town culture. This culture translated on the one hand as: ‘While you and I have got a beef we’ll sort it out in the car park’; on the other hand: ‘We don’t dob on each other; we can punch each other senseless in the car park but we’re not going to tell the police about it’. When quizzed about the reliability of crime statistics for the area, the officer went on to say:

I’ve never drunk at some of the pubs in town mainly because I police ’em but you hear from mates who do drink there, there was a punch up here and a punch up there and so on, and they never appear in our reports. … So my feeling is that [crime] stats are not worth the paper they’re written on.

At the time of our field work, Pembleton’s pubs were closing early—around midnight—on a Friday night as part of a sustained effort to control levels of violence, but this did not include one notorious night club, the main source of entertainment for busloads of FIFOs every night of the week. We heard that fights were guaranteed to occur there nightly even though five or six security guards regularly patrolled. A female resident of Pembleton told us ‘my hairdresser … she got glassed from two fellas fighting and she was just sitting by. Yeah, she got a set of stitches down her arm’. Another young woman we interviewed described how she was mauled and groped by a group of FIFOs when she entered this place in daylight to sell raffle tickets for a local youth group. With reference to this same club, one community leader remarked: ‘Every night it’s a bloodbath’. A senior education specialist we interviewed in Pembleton was disgusted by its reputation for violence, stating that:

it should be closed down; it’s a disgrace and just some of the stories you hear about aggression and so on, it’s just disgusting. … I don’t know why but there’s a big prevalence of anti-social and aggressive behaviour later on in the evenings.

Increases in hospital emergency cases caused by injuries from ‘glassing’ were a major issue for health service workers we interviewed. Ambulance officers we interviewed told us they habitually treated the injuries of those they classified as ‘the PFOs’ (pissed and fell overs): ‘You’ll see it every weekend’. There was general agreement about the seriousness of Pembleton’s drug problem. One local councillor and long-term community member expanded upon the severity of the issue by stating that: ‘Basically some of the people up here working on the resources are up here working because they can earn the bucks to support habits’. Local residents believed that drugs were not only being used extensively by the FIFOs but were also being distributed by them into the mainstream community. Important for our research is the recognition that methamphetamines have strong stimulant effects and are linked to violence and to physical and mental health problems (for example, seizures, paranoia and depression) (Sommers et al.).

The idea that outsiders lacked social control because they were not embedded in the community was therefore a central theme emerging from the interviews. Being a ‘genuine’ local was determined not just by length of stay but also by links to networks in the community. In this way, social embeddedness became a significant marker of social belonging both in a symbolic and practical sense. Those interviewed for the study presented as a well-networked and socially integrated group who were able to mobilise a dominant discourse of crime-talk, linking social disorder and decline to (FIFO) outsiders. What was interesting with regard to the data collected in Armstrong was the strong association between FIFO workers and various signifiers of social disorder. Obnoxious and out-of-control behaviours (such as brawling, spitting, urinating in public and littering) were regularly cited by participants as representative of a lack of social cohesion, order and discipline.

Doubtless the accounts in local crime talk point to real problems of violence and disorder associated with NRWs. While heavily under-reported, the official rate of violence for the police district of Armstrong had risen almost threefold since the beginning of the resources boom (Carrington et al., ‘Globalisation’ 11). The limited available evidence arising from our interviews with local service providers, police officers, health workers and ambulance officers, does suggest that the housing of thousands of men in work camps with little else to do off-roster than consume drugs or alcohol has impacted on levels of male-on-male violence and disorder in this community (Carrington et al., ‘Resource Boom Underbelly’). Just how much is difficult to gauge as participants in violence risk losing their jobs if such altercations are registered officially (Carrington et al., ‘Globalisation’). In any case, the criminological impacts of mining development reliant on thousands of NRWs housed in camps adjacent to existing communities cannot simply be dismissed as entirely an artefact of ‘crime talk’. But the crime talk—quite apart from whether it reflects accurately the reality—itself operates to fan frontier conflict, social division and ultimately undermine the collective solidarity and comforting rural identity of places like Pembleton.

The resources sector in Australia has been at the forefront of a trend to encourage the trading of rights, security and conditions for high wages. A longer-term, more holistic view of the role of work in relation to well-being, personal identity, family and community has given way to a narrower, shorter-term focus on immediate economic benefits. Where economic drivers subjugate all else, where a sense of local community based on dense patterns of acquaintanceship, participation in local sporting and other activities, and high levels of implicit trust is seriously eroded, rural communities become less attractive places to live (Hogg and Carrington) and obviously less attractive destinations for tourists. As the National Tourism Alliance (4) points out in its submission to the Australian Parliamentary inquiry, tourism relies on vibrant sustainable communities and FIFO is changing all that in regional Australia. Having lost affordability and, in some instances, aesthetic appeal as well, frontier localities lose their appeal as desirable locations in which to live as residents or to visit as tourists. It is impossible to quantify with certainty just how real, exaggerated or imagined are the criminological impacts of thousands of FIFOs on local patterns of drug- and alcohol-related violence and crime. What is certain is that crime talk about FIFO has become a crucial ingredient and tool of cultural conflict and a way of ventilating anxiety about the loss of communal solidarity, rural identity and attractiveness as a tourist destination in the face of supercapitalist mining operations.



Kerry Carrington is a Professor in Criminology and the Head of the School of Justice, Faculty of Law, Queensland University of Technology. She is the Chief Editor ofInternational Journal for Crime and Justice,Pacific Rim Editor ofCritical Criminology and widely published in the field of criminology.

Russell Hogg is an Adjunct Professor, School of Justice, Faculty of Law, Queensland University of Technology. He is co-author ofPolicing the Rural Crisis andRethinking Law and Order and has otherwise published widely in the field of criminology. His current research interests include the social and criminological impacts of the mining boom and the politics of crime and justice.

Alison McIntosh is a Senior Research Fellow in the School of Justice, Faculty of Law at Queensland University of Technology and Managing Editor of the International Journal for Crime and Justice. Alison is a human geographer whose research interests focus on issues impacting upon the wellbeing of persons living in regional and remote Australia including, more recently, those living in frontline mining communities.

John Scott is a Professor in Criminology at the University of New England, NSW. Current research interests include crime in rural communities, community policing and the regulation of sex work.

We acknowledge the support of ARC Discovery Project 2008-2011 DP0878476. The Australian and New Zealand Society of Criminology presented the authors with the 2012 Allen Austin Bartholomew Award for their research on the criminological impact of mining.


1 At the time of our fieldwork, available data for the Armstrong police district (which encompasses Pembleton and several smaller towns) indicated a violent crime rate 2.3 times the state average. The impact of FIFO and DIDO on regional Australia is highly contentious, under-researched and currently the subject of an Australian Parliamentary Inquiry being chaired by Independent MP Tony Windsor. This article also draws on submissions to that inquiry: two from the tourism sector and our ARC team’s submission (Carrington et al., Submission).

2 All interviews were recorded using unobtrusive digital voice recorders. In addition, notes were taken of relevant incidents or particularly pertinent points. All interview data were transcribed, coded and thematically analysed (Spradley) to distil in-depth information from the data (Marks and Yardley). Recurring themes were established by colour coding transcript margins and re-grouping into conceptual constructs. In this way, an initial skeleton of analytic codes which reflected recurring themes and patterns was progressively developed until a ‘codebook’ evolved.

3 Waller noted that these projections were most likely conservative.

4 The BHP Mitsubishi Alliance Cavil Ridge Project at Moranbah, which was granted Qld state government approval to hire up to 100 percent of its workforce as non-resident, is one such example.

5 See Carrington et al., ‘Resource Boom Underbelly’; Carrington et al., ‘Globalization’; Carrington and Pereira; Haslam McKenzie et al.; Lockie et al.; Murray and Peetz; Petkova et al.

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