Sacrificing lifestyle for FIFO: Is it worth it?

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What's it like working in a FIFO job in the Australian mining industry? We asked four people who've done it.

Newsroom asked four people who have “been there, done that” for their take on why they did it, What’s it like working in a FIFO job in the Australian mining industry? MPi what it was like and, crucially, whether it was all worth it.

Here’s what they had to say.

Case study 1: The Health and Lifestyle Coordinator

How long did you work FIFO and what sort of roles did you hold?

Two years and two months. I was overseeing the fitness facilities (gyms, pools, courts, etc.) presenting ‘toolboxes’ on improving health and preventing injuries, and organising and running social events.

Why did you want to work FIFO in the first place? And did it deliver on what you thought it promised?

I did it to get ahead financially and to advance my career.

What were the three best things about working FIFO? And why?

  1. Increased income. It allowed me to buy an engagement ring, get a deposit for a house and travel. That definitely took the stress off financially.

  2. The week off for R&R. It allows you a good level of freedom to get away for a few days, to unwind and catch up with the people you’ve missed.

  3. Being provided free food and facilities at the village. It saves you more money because you’re not buying food and you have free access to a gym, pool and other entertainment.

What were the three worst things about working FIFO? And why?

  1. Being away from friends and family. It’s hard to maintain relationships and you miss out on a lot of big events. Time with your partner on the week off can also get tense sometimes.

  2. Isolation. I worked alone in an office for about 11 hours a day and by the time I finished, my mates had gone to bed so I’d spend another few hours alone in my room before going to sleep.

  3. Long shifts/rosters. I did 12 hours split shift over 14 hours for two weeks. It takes its toll mentally and physically and takes a few days just to get over it. It feels like it compounds over the years as well.

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Do you feel like you sacrificed lifestyle to work FIFO? Or, perhaps, do you feel like FIFO gave you a lifestyle you would not otherwise have had?

Ultimately, I felt I sacrificed more than I gained. It did give me a better lifestyle by allowing me to travel and buy a house, but I missed out on a lot of other things money couldn’t buy. It also led to me being depressed.

Why did you stop working FIFO?

I became very depressed and resented the flight up to work. I had been made redundant twice in four months and lost a substantial amount of income each time, so lost the financial incentive. There were no longer any positives.

Case Study 2: The Train Driver

How long have you been working FIFO and what sort of roles have you held?

I’ve been there seven years. I worked my way up from Junior Train Examiner, to Yard Driver, to Mainline Driver. I’ve also acted as a Workplace Trainer and Assessor. I had a Locomotive Driver’s qualification from my previous seven years’ working in the railways, driving freight trains in regional Australia for StateRail.

Why did you want to work FIFO in the first place? And has it delivered on what you thought it promised?

I was working in manufacturing and was earning about a third of the wages my old StateRail mates were getting working in the north-west Australian railroads. I wanted “in” and knocked on some doors. FIFO offered the opportunity to work bulk hours for 50 per cent of your life and have 50 per cent bulk time off, so I applied and got the job.

It has enabled me to travel the world over the last seven years and it has made me realize its quality of life that matters. I’ve been missing out on social celebrations, family weddings, funerals, Christmas, shows and gigs for a long time and it can be tough working 14 days straight, too. Especially when you fall ill or things goings on at home make you distracted in an isolated and oppressive environment. I couldn’t do 4/1; 2/2 is bearable. Working 2/1 for four years scarred me; 2/2 is a good roster. And 2/4 is semi-retirement. Some of my workmates do this and love it. They work 14 days and have 28 off. It’s reduced money but lifestyle freedom.

Working FIFO can be hard on relationships and, if I’m honest, when you fly home you’re a bit “manic”. You have had 14 days to brood and think about what you’re going to do on days off and you hit the ground excited and sleep-deprived, straight off nightshift, and it’s a bit like someone let you out of a cage! The safety and surveillance culture you are emerged in on site can be truly oppressive and when liberation arrives, celebration is called for. Alcohol is usually involved.

It took me years to recognise it, but after seven years I can check myself and find a balance. Some people struggle and I’ve seen plenty of them succumb. We have had a few suicides on site over the past 12 months, where some of my colleagues failed to cope and took extreme actions.

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What are the three best things about working FIFO? And why?

Getting ahead. Saving. Travelling.

Leisure time – other jobs struggle to match 13 days off for every 14 days of work.

Disposable income, idle days on a regular basis – it’s all about how you fill them.

What are the three worst things about working FIFO? And why?

Isolation. Limited social interactions. Oppressive culture.

As I said, you find yourself missing family, Christmas, big events. And of course you’re working a strenuous roster in a hot and oppressive environment. 

Do you feel like you've sacrificed lifestyle to work FIFO? Or, perhaps, do you feel like FIFO has given you a lifestyle you would not otherwise have had?

A little bit from column A and a little bit from column B. That’s where the balance comes in. If you can hit your stride, save a little, travel a bit, and are single like me, it has its high points. I’ve got the deposit for a house saved. It’s the first time in my life I’ve been able to save. But doing it on your own all the time reminds you that you sacrifice relationships (be they plutonic or romantic) to live those highs.

When you’re home, everyone else is working. It’s “a school night”. Getting involved in community or social groups is a juggle. For example, I can’t do anything on a Wednesday as I only get one per month at home. I fly out to site on Wednesday mornings and I’m back Thursday afternoons, 15 days later. So, if my uni tutorial (I studied part-time for a while) was on a Wednesday, I’d have to choose another unit.

You miss choir rehearsals and footy fixtures – whatever it is you’re into. That’s a connection we all need and sometimes I miss it. It’s the sort of thing that contributes to your contentment in life.

Case Study 3: The Admin, Labouring and Contract Employee Couple

How long did you work FIFO and what sort of roles did you hold?

I did FIFO for a total of seven years. I started off in administration at a production site and then had the opportunity to move to construction (for more money), so I moved after about 12 months. I stayed in the second role for about another two years. My main jobs included running accommodation, billing and booking flights. My partner worked on the same site and when his company’s contract ended he moved to another site. Then the opportunity came up for me to move to the new site with him, so I took it. We stayed on the other site for four years. Originally I went up as a “peggy” (a cleaner) and I stayed in that role for about 12 months, then I was moved into a labourer role and stayed doing that for about three years.

Why did you want to work FIFO in the first place? And did it deliver on what you thought it promised?

To get ahead and save money. When I first went up, I was doing administration roles. The money wasn’t great, and for the first 12 months (while I was working production) I was getting less money than I had been getting in Perth. But I had fewer overheads because I didn’t have to spend money on clothes, shoes, food, entertainment, gym memberships, and so on.

The idea was that with both my partner and I working up north we would be able to save a lot more. He was a labourer on the first site, which meant he earnt a lot more than me, so we were saving more money.

What were the three best things about working FIFO? And why?

  1. The money and the opportunities that were made available because of the money. We holidayed to so many different countries; we did a property development; we bought a few houses. We are currently on a long holiday because we were able to put money away.

  2. Routine. I liked that every day was the same: get up at the same time, wear the same uniform, everything was predictable. Sometimes that is nice.

  3. Time off work. Our R&R week was one week off every four. I often thought I didn’t know how I would return to the “normal two-day weekend”. I like having a week off; it allows me to travel and recharge.

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What were the three worst things about working FIFO? And why?

  1. Missing out on family events like weddings, birthdays and so on. I didn’t so much miss them in day-to-day life. I talked to my family lots; we sent photos. There are so many ways to keep in touch with people these days. But when things like a wedding came up in the middle of your swing, taking time off for it sometimes wasn’t possible and that was hard.

  2. Boredom. Although I liked the routine, all the jobs I had on FIFO were very boring. Especially the job I held for the last three years. It was exactly the same, every day. And I was bored every day. But I was earning great money and so the offset was worth it.

  3. Heat and flies. It may not seem much, but when you stand outside in the sun for 12 hours a shift and the flies are under your glasses, or buzzing around your ears, it’s frustrating. I did as much as I could to cover up from the sun – full PPE which I always wore properly, suncream applied three to four times a day and a “face sock” just to cover up any other areas of my face that were missed, but you can still see the damage the sun did to my skin being outside for 12 hours a day.

  4. The whingers. (I know this is number four but it has to be mentioned). No-one forces these people up into the mines, but some people whinge every day for their whole shift and then go to the bar after work to keep whinging. If you don’t like the job, quit and find something you do like. People say they have to be up here. If you can’t afford your lifestyle, change it. It’s a great opportunity to earn money quickly. Take advantage of this, by all means, but appreciate what you are being given.

Do you feel like you sacrificed lifestyle to work FIFO? Or, perhaps, do you feel like FIFO gave you a lifestyle you would not otherwise have had?

It’s easy to be negative, but in reality FIFO gave me opportunities I would otherwise never have had: travelling the world has been amazing, being able to help out family has been amazing, I feel lucky to have done FIFO.

Why did you stop working FIFO?

After seven years, we wanted to do something different. The construction project we had been working on was coming to an end, we knew it would be over in the next few months and moved on to production (fewer people are needed to run a site than to build it) so we thought we would determine our fate and our exit, and leave when we wanted to.

Case Study 4: The Heavy Diesel Mechanic and Supervisor

How long did you work FIFO and what sort of roles did you hold?

I worked in mining for 10 years. I started as a contractor as a Heavy Diesel Mechanic and then was employed as a Supervisor for a large mining company. I was promoted to Superintendent in a role I did for three years before I was offered a voluntary redundancy last March.

Why did you want to work FIFO in the first place? And did it deliver on what you thought it promised?

Where we currently live there are limited opportunities and jobs in this field. The FIFO salary was also an attraction. FIFO was great for our family. I had a “nine days on, five days off” roster, so effectively I was home every second weekend and got to actively participate in our children’s lives by taking them to school and attending after-school sport activities.

What were the three best things about working FIFO? And why?

  1. The quality time you get at home with your family.

  2. Financial reward

  3. Career opportunities and training

What were the three worst things about working FIFO? And why?

  1. Being away from family on special occasions.

  2. The physical and mental effect on your body. That is, the long hours in the heat, lonely nights, the numerous flights to and from home.

  3. The lack of belonging in your hometown. You can’t do things like commit to coach a sporting team, for example. And, of course, your workmates actually live all over Australia and it’s harder to make connections with people locally when you’re away so much.

Why did you stop working FIFO?

I was offered a redundancy last year. I’ve had a great time being home with the family. I’m currently working locally, but my hours are 6am to 6pm, with an on-call late-night shift and the occasional Saturday. The work I am doing and the amount I am getting paid is less than I was getting 20 years ago. But a job is a job and the company is good to work for – it’s just that the job satisfaction, salary and quality family time is lacking. I am now looking at new possibilities back doing FIFO which, as a family, we believe suits our lifestyle better.

If you’re considering a FIFO role in the mining industry, get in touch with Mining People International.

Dan Hatch
Mining People International