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The impact of mobile work on partners and families in Australia

Miners in Perth, Australia, heading home after a prolonged period away from their families Miners in Perth, Australia, heading home after a prolonged period away from their families
16 Apr
Two researchers have identified a deep-rooted sense of disorientation and loneliness among the partners of Australia’s growing community of mobile workers

Fly-in fly-out work (or FIFO), in which workers travel from their homes to live in host communities for days or weeks at a time, has long been common in Australia, particularly in the mining and resources sector. According to a 2013 study by KPMG, the number of mobile workers in Australia increased by 37 per cent between 2006 and 2011, up to 213,773 (two per cent of the population). While most research to date has focused on the impact of this often strenuous labour on the workers themselves, a 2013 parliamentary inquiry into the challenges of FIFO stressed that the impact on partners who are ‘left behind’, overwhelmingly women, remained under-researched.

Concerned about these missing narratives, human geographers David Bissell, associate professor at the University of Melbourne, and Andrew Gorman-Murray, a professor at Western Sydney University, launched a three-year study into the families of highly mobile workers in Australia. In doing so they focused not just on FIFO workers in the mining industry (who only represent one-fifth of Australia’s total mobile worker community), but also on other sectors in which mobile work is common, including technology, manufacturing, aviation, film and health. By conducting interviews with 60 people, including both workers and their partners, Bissell and Gorman-Murray identified an almost universal sense of what they refer to as ‘disorientation’ among the partners of mobile workers (all but one of whom was female). This sense manifested itself in a number of problematic ways, including the constant making and breaking of routines; loneliness and difficulties bonding with other people; and a sense of unfamiliarity and distance when the mobile worker returns home.

In their paper, published in the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) journal Transactions, Bissell and Gorman-Murray detailed the experiences of three women in particular, each of whom highlighted difficulties coping with a partner doing FIFO work. The first interviewee, ‘Claire’, said she experienced an increased mental load, both when her partner was away (‘I have these kind of stupid thought processes. If I fall and then I knock myself out, and then the baby…’), but also on her partner’s return which, though warmly anticipated, would throw-off her established routine (‘It gets slightly more chaotic when he’s around’).

shutterstock 126230546Fly-in, fly-out work is particularly common in Australia’s mining sector

For ‘Theresa’, the macho environment of the mine site on which her husband worked was particularly problematic. She noted that he brought the site back with him, ‘with his ape-man, puffed-out chest,’ and added that, ‘when they’re home you become their counsellor, you become everything’. Theresa also noted that the wives of mobile workers operate under code in which, ‘you’re not allowed to cry, you’re not allowed to say you’re not coping,’ adding that to do so would mean her husband would lose focus on his job or ‘soften-up’ to a level deemed unacceptable at the mining site.

To varying degrees, all three women spoke about the challenges of the homecoming and identified the difficulties of understanding each other’s experience. Though ‘Kate’, the third interviewee, acknowledged that the work done by her ex-partner was physically hard (they had recently separated), she also noted that, ‘obviously I haven’t been there, and I don’t know what it’s like’. At the same time, she considered his working environment an institutionalised experience, lacking some of the mental pressures placed on a home-maker: ‘He doesn’t have all the baggage and physical detritus that you have when you have two kids, two dogs, two cats, three chickens and 20 fish.’ She said that the homecoming was especially difficult as her partner wasn’t used to ‘having to take somebody else’s situation and emotions into consideration’.

For researcher David Bissell, these negative experiences fly in the face of the modern idea of an increasingly connected world. ‘We hear a lot about how technologies are keeping us closer together and creating a shrinking world,’ he says. ‘What was really striking about this project was that even with all these potentials for connection there are really problematic disconnections happening in ways that fly beneath the radar. Many of the people we talked to reflected on how this felt sense of space, the distance that opens up between people, can lead to all kinds of negative things.’

Bissell acknowledges that for some workers, particularly younger people without dependents, this type of high-paid work offers a sense of independence. But for those with families, the experiences recorded were generally negative. What’s more, the high pay attached to such work often meant people felt trapped by it, a phenomenon commonly referred to as ‘golden handcuffs’ in Australia. Bissell thinks that sharing stories is one of the most important answers to these problems. ‘It sounds a little obvious, but more support for mobile workers themselves and also their families is really vital,’ he says. ‘This might just be about sharing stories with prospective workers, or accounts of some of the challenges they might face. A lot of the people we talked to didn’t really know what they were getting themselves into.’

Bissell also points to the need for employers to take greater responsibility for workers and potentially devise better counselling programmes. While some employers, particularly those in the resources sector, do have employee assistance programmes, the workers Bissell spoke to were largely disparaging of them. ‘At the moment there is a downturn in the resources sector and so people were really worried about the impact of raising difficulties, especially when it comes to negotiating a new contract,’ says Bissell. ‘There needs to be a much bigger rethink about how these people can be supported in non-judgmental ways, because at the moment that really isn’t happening.’

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