Flexible workers are a feature of today’s Australian labour market. One example of a ‘flexible’ worker is a ‘Fly-in Fly-out’ (“FIFO”) worker. A FIFO worker may work, for example, a few weeks in a remote location, often on a mine site in northern Western Australia or on an offshore oil or gas exploration project in Australian or international waters, and then returns home for a few weeks away from work.
This style of work has become common in Western Australia; the FIFO lifestyle has become a way of life for many Western Australian workers. The distinctive brightly coloured work clothing that FIFO workers wear is a familiar sight at airports around the country, particularly in Western Australia.
Some workers find working on mining and resources projects exciting and rewarding.
Other FIFO workers, however, struggle when they are away from home and their loved ones and they experience mental illness, such as depression, and stress from the pressures of their particular work and irregular routine.
Until late last century, the traditional or typical Australian worker was employed on a full-time basis and worked a fairly standard working week, with fixed start and finish times each day.
Part-time, fixed-term, and casual workers have rapidly transformed the labour market in Australia, like elsewhere in the world, and the FIFO worker is part of that picture of changing labour patterns.
The flexible system of work has been, and continues to be, one of the key means of developing mining and gas resources in remote areas of the State of Western Australia, where infrastructure and services are limited.
While the trend towards flexible working practices, such as offshoring and outsourcing, suit the challenging business conditions that employers face this trend has been criticised as suiting the employer to the detriment of the employee. Some FIFO workers however, value the exciting and challenging work they obtain on onshore or offshore mining and resources projects and thrive in their FIFO jobs. The comparatively high salary and irregular work schedule suits some FIFO workers exceedingly well. But, of course, it is not for everyone.
Mining is one of the greatest sources of jobs in Western Australia and the FIFO culture that characterises the mining and resources sector is now better understood by professionals in different service areas, such as psychology, medicine, social work, and so on.
The flexible style of work is also common in Queensland, where a feature of the resources sector there is a small local work force that is supplemented by FIFO workers.
Initially, in the past, studies found it difficult to quantify the long term impacts of FIFO work on employees and the broader community. With time, more research has been undertaken and, unfortunately, evidence has been found to suggest there are detrimental impacts associated with FIFO work – that is, despite the obvious attraction and allure of comparatively higher wages and a career in the mining and resources sector, the FIFO lifestyle can have detrimental impacts on workers’ relationships at home and their health.
FIFO workers in remote locations often miss out on participating in significant family events, for instance birthdays, weddings, and anniversary celebrations. This can put strain on their relationships and lead to an increase in stress.
If the stress becomes unmanageable and is experienced over a prolonged period, it may be linked with mental health problems, such as depression. Without adequate personal coping mechanisms, assistance and support, stress can lead to social problems, such as drug use and excessive alcohol consumption.
If you are a FIFO worker, or if you are considering becoming a FIFO worker, you should be aware of your obligations to your employer or those obligations that will apply once you enter into an employment contract. You should understand, for instance, that your obligations to your employer may apply not only when you are physically present on site, but also when you are transiting to and from site.
Irrespective of whether an employee’s obligations to his or her employer are contained in the written terms of an employment contract, certain duties will commonly be imposed on an employee. They are terms that will be implied by law, known as ‘implied terms’ and they apply to all employment contracts.
These implied duties include an employee’s duty of obedience, an employee’s duty of cooperation and proper conduct, and an employee’s duty to exercise care and skill. It is implied, for example, that the employer and the employee will take care not to cause injury or damage to the other.
Your employer will have duties and obligations to you, and these are significant, but when an employment relationship breaks down it is usually the worker who is alleged to have breached his or her duties and ignorance of the law is usually irrelevant when working out how to try to repair the employment relationship.
Learning how to manage the balance between the employee’s legal obligations to the employer and the employer’s duty to the employee can be critical to success in the labour market, including the FIFO experience on site where employees can find themselves outside their typical environment and comfort zones.
The conditions that apply to different companies operating on site may vary. FIFO workers employed by mine site operators are often treated more favourably than those who are employed by third parties operating at the site.
The variation in conditions can mean some workers receive more favourable swings than other employees and get their preferred flight home while other employees can be ‘bumped’ off flights by FIFO workers with preferential conditions.
The FIFO work lifestyle can vary and the absence of a regular routine can put a strain on families and workers. The routine is often described as a ‘swing’ because workers spend a certain amount of time on site in remote locations and then ‘swing’ back home for a rest for a week or so before ‘swinging’ to the next prolonged work shift on site.
These swings can vary significantly and may range from five weeks at work and one week at home, to eight days at work and six days at home or some other combination. The swing offered to an employee may vary according to the work site location and the type of work the worker undertakes.
When entering into an employment contract for FIFO work it is important to understand your contractual obligations to your employer, including the combination of hours you will be required to work on site before ‘swinging’ back home to rest, the wages you will receive, and the accommodation you will be provided. Each work site and workforce is different so it is important to evaluate any offer of employment carefully before signing it.
Mental health issues are one of the significant problems facing the FIFO work culture. Employers often try to implement measures to improve worker health. Examples include the inclusion of additional social zones, such as patios, barbeque areas, and gym facilities on site.
Before you sign an employment contract, you should find out about the facilities that you will have access to on site.
Mental health can be adversely impacted by long shifts and night hours. FIFO workers are expected to work up to 12 hours shifts, sometimes straight through the night. These practices disrupt regular eating, sleeping, and social habits.
If you are considering a FIFO position, try to negotiate a roster that suits your lifestyle. Consider your personal tolerance for working long hours away from home, as well as your family’s ability to cope without you. Consider whether you will be able to cope with the conditions on site.
In conclusion, the employment contract, the ‘swing’, and accommodation conditions should all be considered as part of an evaluation of an offer of employment for a FIFO worker.
Before you enter into any employment contract, you should reflect on your personal situation and consider whether you may benefit from obtaining legal advice before you sign the employment contract.
If you believe the conditions you are experiencing in the workplace are problematic because they are below the standard promised to you or if you feel you are experiencing bullying, harassment or discrimination in the workplace, discussing your options with a lawyer can be beneficial and may lead to a positive outcome that preserves the employment relationship.
Do not accept the ‘toughen up princess’ attitude that can permeate some workplaces, be proactive, and seek legal advice to ascertain whether you can make your work sustainable.
About the authors:
This article has been co-authored by Haley Graydon and Kate Bretherton. Haley is a law clerk and is in her final year of study at UWA. Haley has a keen interest in is family law and estates. Kate is an Associate at Lynn & Brown Lawyers and is an experienced Perth employment lawyer, representing employers and employees in relation to many aspects of employment law disputes.