What is Behind the Boom in Mining in Australia ?

by Savitha C Muppala on  March 24, 2010 at 11:09 AM Lifestyle News
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Covered in cigarette smoke, mine worker Anthony Saccoccio looks out at the expanse of Australia's economic powerhouse.

A film of iron-rich red dust lends a tinge of rust to the buildings and cars and there's little reprieve from the punishing desert heat.
 What is Behind the Boom in Mining in Australia ?
What is Behind the Boom in Mining in Australia ?

Posters in English and Chinese remind workers to drink often, and much -- up to 10 litres (two-and-a-half gallons) a shift -- while cyclone warning signs are a constant reminder of the Pilbara coast's exposure to Mother Nature's worst.

"Some people bitch, but this is not the Hilton, it's a mining camp," says Texas-born Saccoccio, a senior engineer at Citic Pacific Mining's Sino Iron project.

"I've worked in the Middle East, Russia. I've worked in war zones. Compared to some other jobs this is pretty good."

Saccoccio is among thousands of 'fly in, fly out', or FIFO, workers who converge on the rugged Pilbara region to work in Western Australia's lucrative oil, gas and mining projects.

For two out of every three weeks he calls an air-conditioned shipping container known as a "donga" home, 1,500 kilometres (900 miles) from his family in Perth.

"I come up here to get away from her!" he jokes about his distant wife, offering a resigned shrug. "She's used to it."

Four cyclones have hit the region in as many months, and summer temperatures exceed 50 degrees Celsius (122 F). Pilbara comes from the local Panyjima tribe's name for the area, bilybara, which means "dry".

Western Australia is the engine room of the country's economic "wonder from Down Under". A resource-rich province 4,000 times the size of Singapore but 70 percent desert, it produces more than one-third of Australia's total exports.

About 15 percent of the world's total iron ore exports come from the remote and rugged Pilbara region alone, which accounts for 35 percent of the global seaborne iron ore trade -- crucial to the booming Chinese economy.

Most workers are lured to the mines by the money, with salaries starting at 100,000 dollars (92,000 US) per year.

But Saccoccio works long shifts, 12 hours a stretch, and though the mining companies endeavour to provide all the creature comforts -- cable television, tennis courts, a pool -- boredom and depression come with the territory.

"If the Pilbara is the heart of the economy then the workers are its soul, and the conditions are tough," explains Brad Upton, from the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union.

"It?s hot, humid and isolated. There would be no ships full of iron ore, gas or other metals without huge sacrifices made by the workers."

Prohibitive living costs, including weekly rents in excess of 2,000 Australian dollars make it impossible for most families to live in the Pilbara, with social disconnection and family breakdowns common due to long periods of separation, Upton said.

"Development of new housing to reduce rent and cost pressures in the area is vastly restricted because so much land is situated on flood plains and the coastal area is the most cyclone-prone region in Australia," he added.

Houses with swimming pools, yachts and flat-screen televisions are a common sight in the town of Karratha, established some 50 years ago as a mining centre by Anglo-Australian resources giants BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto.

The palpable wealth jars with the landscape of red dirt and salt flats, but there are vast amounts of disposable income ringing through the tills of the local home electronics store and the town's alcohol stores and pubs.

Hundreds of grimy workers pack into the Karratha Tavern to drink their earnings every night, a sea of dusty coveralls and steel-capped boots gathering to bet on horseracing and joke with the bikini-clad bar staff.

WA premier Colin Barnett says life in these transient, male-dominated towns is "unusual" and social problems are not uncommon, but rejects descriptions of it as the "Wild West".

"It's not the mining towns of the Gold Rush days and that sort of romantic image. People up there are highly trained, very skilled, and work long hours long days," Barnett said.

"They simply work, eat and sleep and then they fly back."

The influx of workers is set to explode in the next 12 months as construction begins on a series of massive projects in the region -- notably the 37 billion US dollar Gorgon offshore gas plant, which will require 6,000 workers for the first phase alone.

"That project will be one of the largest projects anywhere in the world," explains Anne Nolan, director-general of the office of state development.

On the most conservative modelling, the Chamber of Minerals and Energy estimates the state will need another 27,000 workers by 2014, and warns the number could be as high as 36,000.

Labour pressures and the housing crisis have serious impacts on the provision of services in mining towns, with a shortage of doctors, nurses, teachers and police officers who, quite simply, have nowhere to live.

It's a situation set only to intensify as the global slowdown recedes and the sector returns to boom times, with the Reserve Bank of Australia predicting stellar growth which could run for at least 20 years.

"Our capacity to achieve that is a major challenge," said Nolan.

For workers like Saccoccio, however, the money will always talk.

"The heat's not so bad once you've got a breeze," he said, stubbing out his cigarette.

Source: AFP

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