When the Queensland Government legislated the management of fly-in, fly-out workforce arrangements in 2017, it underscored a long simmering debate in Australia’s large mining states over the obligations of miners to the regional communities they operate in and near. 

The Strong and Sustainable Resource Communities (SSRC) Act saw the introduction of a ban on 100 per cent FIFO workforces at large mining operations near regional communities in the state, prioritising future recruitment from those communities. 

The list of mines within the scope of the legislation has grown in the two years since it was introduced to take in 69 projects and 295 regional communities. 

At its last amendment in June, the ban was extended to include eight more large resource projects – Baralaba Coal Company’s Baralaba North project, Round Oak’s Barbara and Mount Colin projects, Metro Mining’s Bauxite Hills project, New Century Resources’ Century zinc project, Bounty Mining’s Cook Colliery, Auctus Resources’ Mungana project and Pembroke Resources’ Olive Downs project. 

Located 40km south-east of Moranbah in the Bowen Basin, the recently approved $1 billion Olive Downs metallurgical coal mine is expected to create 1000 operational and 500 construction jobs, with the project the first to undertake a social impact assessment under the SSRC Act. 

Pembroke Resources will encourage workers to live in local towns like Moranbah, Nebo, Dysart and Middlemount, while also committing to recruiting locals and people from other regions who may wish to move to local towns. 

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said the project would contribute an estimated $8 billion to the local economy and more than $10 billion to the state. 

Whitehaven Coal’s proposed $1 billion Winchester South project is another to come under the SSRC legislation, expected to create 950 jobs – 500 throughout its two-year construction and 450 full-time roles during operation. 

The project will target employment in regional towns including Moranbah, Dysart and Coppabella. 

“We want to see more regional jobs stay in our regions,” Queensland Minister for State Development Cameron Dick said. 

 “Our SSRC Act was introduced to ensure residents of communities near large resource projects benefit from the construction and operation of these projects. 

“The laws mean these regional towns have fair access to the job opportunities that come with local resources work.” 

While the SSRC Act is primarily aimed at operations with 100 or more operational workers, Mr Dick said smaller projects such as Round Oak’s Mount Colin mine and Barbara project in Queensland’s north-west were brought under the legislation to ensure their neighbouring communities were not overlooked. 

“Both these projects are likely to have less than 100 workers, so their inclusion will ensure residents of Mount Isa and Cloncurry can benefit from the mines’ operations,” he said. 

“It’s clear our changes have been welcomed by the companies making billion-dollar investments in our state, creating confidence for the sector as a whole.” 

Federation University Australia Professor of History Erik Eklund – who has a keen interest in the history of mining – said while companies could still employ some FIFO workers under the SSRC Act, the legislation was a positive development for regional towns. 

“This is a modest announcement by the Queensland Government, but it is still a welcome development,” he said. 

“Historically, mining companies have been the source of regional growth and employment. Where there are existing towns and services, these should be supported. The move to FIFO workers in these cases only threatens the long-term viability of regional towns. 

“FIFO workers often lead very self-contained lives, and long shifts and 10-day rosters ensure their local spend is often quite minimal. 

“FIFO should be reserved for remote-area prospecting work and to manage additional demand for labour which can’t be met locally.” 

Professor Eklund said the impact of a reliance on FIFO workers was also felt beyond the regional communities they worked in. 

“The research suggests FIFO workers have higher rates of mental health and family issues,” he said. 

“It certainly suits some workers, but also takes a heavy toll on others.” 

Illustrating this point, Professor Eklund referred to the findings of the 2015 Western Australian parliamentary inquiry into the mental health impacts of FIFO work arrangements. 

“The inquiry in WA surveyed all of the literature and found evidence FIFO workers had higher rates of stress, anxiety and depression compared to the general population,” he said. 

“FIFO workers typically have a very high labour turnover too, so there are additional costs for companies in hiring and training.” 

Professor Eklund said other Australian states might benefit from similar reform to that adopted in Queensland. 

“FIFO has been a big issue in WA and South Australia, so those states may well look at doing something similar,” he said. 

“It makes sense to have some regulations around where FIFO can be adopted. It should not be the sole working arrangement in areas where there are existing towns and infrastructure.” 

According to the Queensland Government, The SSRC Act has coincided with a boost in mining jobs in Queensland in recent times, with the state experiencing a near 20 per cent boost in coal mining jobs to around 30,000 people, and a 70 per cent boost in metal mining jobs to around 15,000 people over the year to June.