​Australia's Pilbara – A Sense Of Community?

We read and hear a lot about the effects of FIFO work on the workers themselves but what about the effects of a transitory population on some of the towns and regions where these workers are based.  This is the first in a series where we take a look at the FIFO 'scene' from the other side of the equation.  From the perspective of the communities and regions that play host to these transient work forces.

The Pilbara​ in the north of Western Australia covers around 507,896 square kilometres between the Indian Ocean to the west and the Northern Territory border to the east, and incorporates some of the oldest landscapes and natural formations on the planet. Within the region are located the local government authorities of Ashburton, East Pilbara, Port Hedland, and Karratha. The Pilbara region is one of Australia's, and the worlds, mining powerhouses and is responsible for significant contributions to both the state and national coffers. Its population, as per the 2016 Census, stood at just under 61,500 people and according to 2017 calculations is still around that figure. Nearly 36% of the population in 2016 was employed in mining and 13% in construction, making up half the working population in the region.

Unfortunately accurate numbers for FIFO workers in the Pilbara don't exist but in 2011 it was calculated that around 40% of the Pilbara's workforce was FIFO. A 2012 report commissioned by the Chamber of Minerals and Energy WA anticipated that by 2020 this figure would likely reach 83% of the regional workforce or some 41,000 people. A 2014 study by Lopex into suicide rates in the mining industry though put the number of Pilbara FIFO workers at ~50,000 at the time of the report.

Discrepancies like these illustrate the difficulty in pinpointing just how many FIFO workers there actually are! The problem was exacerbated by the 2011 Census because FIFO workers who spent more than 6 months of the year in the Pilbara (or wherever they worked) were required to list that location as their permanent place of residence. As most FIFO workers do spend more than 6 months at work, it will have skewed the figures, giving the impression that the number of permanent residents in these areas is higher than it actually is. In reality, a significant number of those 'permanent' residents are almost certainly FIFO workers. Exactly how many though is not known.

Effects Of Transitory Populations On Local Communities

Transitory populations can impinge greatly on local communities. They place strain on local infrastructure like roads, buildings, and amenities. They also put additional burdens on existing health and community services. Additionally, they can upset local social structure as this report compiled in 2011 highlights. It found that transitory workforces of contractors and non-union workers brought in over the top of local unionised workers, as happened in mining regions like the Pilbara, could potentially undermine the social fabric of a community. Certainly, the results of The Living In The Regions report in 2013 don't paint a promising picture in this regard.

Results of the 2013 Living In The Regions Report tell a community tale….

The report analysed the results of a survey in which participants rated their place of residence according to a number of metrics. They were asked to give a 'positive' score out of 10 for each of the metrics, with 10 being the most positive and 1 being the least positive. These rankings were then averaged for each region to give an overall mean ranking for that metric per region. Significantly, the 2 criteria rated highest by Pilbara and Kimberley residents overall were employment prospects and financial situation. Therefore, it's clear that for the majority of survey respondents in the Pilbara and Kimberley, they live there mainly because of the money and their job. Neither of these is particularly conducive to building community spirit or involvement.

Notably, at the time of this survey the Kimberley and Pilbara regions also had the highest number of people who had lived there for 6 years or less, and the highest number of people who had lived there for under a year. This is consistent with the types of transient mining employment opportunities in those regions but again, it's not inspiring in terms of building a strong, closely knit community.

The results:

  • Community safety scored the lowest in the Kimberley and Pilbara regions (7.01 and 7.35 respectively). Clearly community safety is not a primary motivating reason for living in these regions! 
  • When it comes to happiness, the Pilbara and another mining region (Goldfields/Esperance) scored the lowest (7.24 and 7.37 respectively). Therefore, people aren't living in these regions out of sheer happiness either. 
  • As for work/life balance – you guessed it. The Pilbara once again comes out at the bottom of the pile with the Goldfields/Esperance region not far behind for work/life balance (7.18 and 7.21 respectively).
  • Health and general well being – the Goldfields/Esperance region ranks lowest for this priority with the Pilbara only a fraction of a percentage behind it (7.26 and 7.29).
  • Apparently, a sense of community is low in major mining regions too because once again it's the mining regions of the Pilbara and Goldfields/Esperance that rank the lowest at 6.55 and 6.97.
  • The same situation applies to community connectedness. Both the Pilbara and the Goldfields/Esperance regions fare worse than all other regional areas (6.79 and 6.86) in this metric with the exception of the Peel region, which sits between them in ranking.
  • But here it comes…. The Pilbara, Kimberley, and Goldfields/Esperance regions well and truly lead the pack when it comes to the financial situation metric! (7.60, 7.23 and 7.11)
  • Also ranking highly across the mining regions as a reason for living in those areas were employment prospects. The Pilbara, Kimberley, and Goldfields/Esperance regions all finished ahead of the rest for this metric with a mean ranking of 7.59, 7.38 and 7.00 respectively.
  • For education and training prospects, only the Gascoyne region (5.49) scored lower than the Pilbara with its mean score of 5.55. The Kimberley and Goldfields/Esperance weren't far behind.
  • When it came to participation in local activities (community, sporting or volunteer activity) the mining regions were amongst the better performers, indicating that even though sentiments around community connectedness and sense of community as reason for living there are ambivalent at best, people are still prepared to support local activities.

Ultimately though when it came to remaining where they lived at the time of the survey, only 28% of Pilbara respondents indicated a willingness to do so. This was far less than any of the other regions, including the Kimberley and Goldfields/Esperance regions.

These results paint a very clear picture of the Pilbara, and the Goldfields/Esperance and Kimberley regions to a degree, as being very much places where people predominantly choose to live because of better money and job prospects. Certainly, other metrics for living in these regions rank much lower down the scale than they do in other regions. This implies several things. Either there is very little sense of community, community connection and safety; work/life balance; happiness; health and well being; and education and training in communities within these regions.

Or a significant number of the people living there don't consider these metrics as important as money and work! This in turn can impact upon community atmosphere and morale generally. After all, if a significant number of your local residents are clearly only there for the money and their work it's eventually going to have impact upon the community generally.
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