High wages come at a cost for Irish workers down under
After a recruitment drive in 2011, Irish families arrived in Perth in their droves
Conditions in Western Australia are tough: “It is hot up north in the mines, which are already hitting 40 degrees,” says Donna Quinn of the Claddagh Association. Photograph: Getty Images
Ronan Cranny works 14 days in Koolyanobbing, before flying home to his wife Caitriona and their daughter in Perth for seven days.
From an Irish perspective, the resources boom in Western Australia couldn’t have come at a better time. As tens of thousands of construction workers were being laid off here as the recession deepened in 2009-2010, the WA government was crying out for skilled tradesmen to fill chronic labour shortages which threatened the success of multibillion dollar mining projects in the state.
Armed with glossy brochures and promising lucrative salaries, Western Australia’s former minister for training and workforce development, Peter Collier, embarked on a recruitment drive in Ireland in the summer of 2011, which has since resulted in thousands of Irish workers and their families uprooting to Perth and the surrounding areas to work in the region’s mines and oil and gas fields.
Government efforts to provide manpower for the mines has led to a rapidly growing population, with an average of about 1,000 workers arriving from overseas every week last year. But the effort has been worth it. The resource sector overall has been worth more than $100 billion in Western Australia annually for the past three years.
The industry employs more than 100,000 people in the state, with tens of thousands more working in associated sectors such as construction and services.
As a result, the resource-rich region has overtaken New South Wales as the most popular destination for Irish workers on four-year employer-sponsored 457-visas, the majority of whom are travelling over to work in construction or mining. There were 4,160 Irish living in WA on 457s in June, more than half of whom had arrived in the previous 12 months. Carpenters and joiners are the biggest group, followed by civil engineers, project administrators, electricians, plumbers, architects and motor mechanics.
The majority are employed on a fly-in, fly-out (Fifo) basis, spending a few weeks on site in the regional location before flying back to an urban centre like Perth for a week or so where their family may be living.
Fifo contracts are so common now that more than 52,000 workers pass through Perth airport every week on their way to or from the mines. Employees and contractors are rewarded with considerably higher wages than they would be for city-based jobs, with flights and accommodation in specially built housing or work camps provided.
However, the six-figure salaries and long periods of leave come at a cost, especially for workers who are leaving a family behind them in Perth for weeks at a time, according to Donna Quinn of the Claddagh Association, which provides welfare support for Irish people in Western Australia.
“The conditions are tough. They work 12-hour days, live on campsites or in shared houses. They finish work, get on a bus to go back to the campsite, eat dinner, sleep, and get up to do it all again the next day, over and over until they get their week off. And it is hot up north in the mines, which are already hitting 40 degrees.”
Being away from home can place huge strain on relationships and many employers now offer a counselling service for employees and their loved ones to help them to deal with the pressure of being separated for weeks at a time.