Flying in and out, and often sitting idle
A SKILLED fly-in fly-out driller hired for an offshore rig sat in his Perth home for more than six months on full pay of about $150,000 a year, waiting for the call telling him he was finally needed on site.
These ''benchwarmers'', as they are known in the industry, sit pretty until the company they have signed on with needs them, or their labour hire firm sends them on a project.
Meanwhile, resource companies are losing millions each year to high turnover rates and the inability to source skilled labour, a federal fly-in fly-out inquiry has heard in Perth this week.
While the majority warm benches for up to two months, in extreme rare cases benchwarmers can wait close to a year for the call.
The founder of FIFObids, Michael Haywood, owned two mid-tier gas and mining services companies, but could not find the skilled fly-in fly-out staff he needed. Instead he relied heavily on 457 visa workers. ''It's just so difficult trying to get workers,'' he said of his situation last year.
At the same time the man who would become Mr Haywood's business partner, a fly-in fly-out worker, Antonluigi Gozzi, was doing strategy consultation work for a large labour hire group.
''Their main problems were they had so many people on the books, retaining them so they could use them, but they weren't using them all the time,'' Mr Haywood said. ''The utilisation of these guys was so bad that their profit margins were quite low.''
The pair created the FIFObids website, which went live this week, with the dream that employers could shop online for skilled workers and, as with other online auctions, they could bid for what they wanted. The worker, who pays nothing to register with FIFObids, can then choose which offer they feel is most suitable.
''People do like to work, believe it or not, and you do get sick of not doing anything,'' he said.
''On average across the industry, there's about a 30 per cent vacancy with every company. People don't have the dump truck drivers, they don't have the engineers, they don't have the project managers they need, and it's obviously costing them money.''
The website collects three times the offered hourly rate for each selected worker from the company as a one-off fee for using their service.
Fly-in fly-out workers have become a necessary part of staffing rapid iron ore and gas project expansion in remote parts of the country, the Chamber of Commerce and Industry Western Australia told the inquiry this week.
But the effects of failing to adequately manage and cater for transient workforces in the tens of thousands were also discussed, in terms of harm to family, worker and regional community, but also to companies which are rapidly cross-poaching skilled workers who have no sense of attachment to their site.
A rise in resilient south-east Asian strains of sexually transmitted infection in the fly-in fly-out heavy north-west of WA was already a ''major problem'' due to a lack of health management and specific services for workers, the president of the Australian Medical Association WA, David Mountain, told the inquiry on Tuesday.
''You do have the recipe there for a very major epidemic of sexual transmitted disease,'' he said.
The Australian Medical Association also warned of rising operating costs driving regional doctors out of mining towns, where medical resources are already stretched.
The Chamber of Minerals and Energy of WA estimated about 52 per cent of the state's resources workforce last year - or 46,800 workers - were on fly-in fly-out rosters.
Recent estimates have put that number closer to 90,000, and it is expected to rise as more projects come online, according to the chamber.
A Perth mother, Nicole Ashby, who gave evidence on behalf of her support group FIFO Families, said she understood that fly-in fly-out should be a choice, but stressed that companies could manage their attrition problems by making fly-in fly-out arrangements more suited to the individual worker or their family.
''It's hard to explain to a two-year-old that dad's at work, he's on an oil rig, and he's not coming back for four weeks,'' she said.
The chief executive of the Chamber of Minerals and Energy WA, Reg Howard-Smith, said that even when a company managed to source skilled workers, retaining them was another issue.
''And you will inevitably find employees within each company comparing facilities offered onsite, rosters and pay scales when they are either waiting to go to site or on their time off back at home,'' he said.