‘Working FIFO in Australia tests your mental strength’

Wages are high but I’m tired of working 14 12-hour days in a row in a remote location


I’ve been a FIFO (fly in fly out) worker in Western Australia for almost three years on and off.

The phrase FIFO is a relatively new one to us Irish. Australia began to adopt FIFO work practices in the early 1980s as an alternative to purpose-built townships, when developments in communications and transportation, particularly cheap and reliable air transport, resulted in FIFO work becoming a viable option to bring construction and mining employees to remote areas rich in natural resources.

We work 14 12-hour days consecutively, which equates to 84 hours a week. Our “swing” as they call it in Australian mining lingo is a 2/1, meaning we work two weeks straight and get one week off. The first week is dayshift and the second week is nightshift. My basic working day on dayshift involves rising at 3.45am and getting home at roughly 6pm to my 8x8ft quarters.

Like any job there are pros and cons, but FIFO work is perhaps the only calling where you have to conjure a plan to give it up almost before you begin. It tests your mental strength in so many ways, which is hard to comprehend until you’re immersed in it. The stresses we all experience in our working lives are greatly amplified the moment you board that plane at the commencement of each swing. The metal bird whisks me 1,526km away from civilisation in Perth, where my Australian home is, to the hot and desolate Pilbara located in the northwest of Australia. It is more than the distance between Ireland and Spain.

The Pilbara is a unique place. The landscape screams remote wilderness; the earth is a Martian shade of blood red which instantly warns any new arrival that there is only one ruler in this domain, the blistering, retina burning, gaseous ball of fire high in the sky. The Pilbara region has both a tropical and semi-desert climate, with temperatures ranging from 15°C to 45°C. The battle to avoid heat illness and dehydration is fought every day.

The FIFO lifestyle attracts people from all walks of life, ranging from ex-convicts for petty crimes to people with PhDs from world renowned universities. There is also an international flavour; our workplace would give any UN conference a run for its money, such is the diverse blend of nationalities.

My FIFO colleagues all have an exit plan. They have chosen to work on FIFO contracts to boost their careers, because of the high wages, to pay off a debt, or save for a house or wedding. You have to have a good reason to be so far away from modern comforts and friends for two weeks in every three.

I’m 33 now and I’m beginning to realise that FIFO has just as many cons as it does rewards. As your disposable income grows your social life enters into hibernation like state, and to be fair part of your soul does too.

The friends you leave behind in the city each time you fly to work are flirting with other social circles, while you as a FIFO worker are eating, socialising and working with the same people for more hours than you can compute. The weeks and months merge into a mishmash of accomplishments and what ifs. You wage a war with your inner self, debating when you will jump off this money ride. 

It is a high pressure environment, and there is no shortage of people waiting in the wings, chomping at the bit to take your place. You quickly develop mastery skills of your chosen occupation.

Mental health problems are unfortunately all too prevalent in the FIFO world, as is relationship breakdown. There is a swing “4/1” (work four weeks and one week off) that is commonly known in the industry as the divorce roster. The walls of the Australian Parliament often echo with debate on the mental and social problems suffered by FIFO workers. Campaigns for more family-friendly rosters are gathering more momentum.

I count down the days until my swing is over, avoiding all social media websites that constantly remind you about everyday life you are missing out on as a FIFO worker. I wish away the time until I fly down to my rented accommodation in Perth for those precious seven days.

I feel blessed to have shared my FIFO experience with some amazing people, who I would have never have encountered only for Ireland’s economic downturn, which forced me to leave Ireland after I graduated in 2011. I don’t bear a grudge with the fact I had to emigrate - in fact in many ways I’m glad economic circumstances forced me to go - but since my Christmas visit home this year my urge to return home has grown stronger.

This call has come in the year I’m eligible to apply to become an Australian citizen. Perhaps if I leave the limbo of this FIFO world I will settle in Perth; only time will tell. But I know for certain the time to get off this FIFO ride is coming.

Crosscare Migrant Project has published a new guide today for Irish workers on FIFO contracts in Australia, based on research by the Australian government, academics, and organisations specialising in mental health and addiction.

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