Since FIFO mining established itself in Western Australia in the late 1970s, the wet mess has been a regular feature within on-site camps. Photo: Nic Walker
High times in the mining industry that once saw fly-in, fly-out workers being offered attractive incentives are changing.
In a move that may have made Rio Tinto less desirable to workers in the past, the global mining company has decided to make its Argyle Diamond Mine site camp alcohol-free, by shutting down its wet mess.
While the mining heavyweight would not go into the reasons for the change, industry insiders say it is clear that as demand for workers to the mining and resources sector reduces, so too does the need to win over employees with generous work conditions.
Argyle Diamonds managing director Shane Johnson confirmed to Fairfax Media that “Argyle Diamond Mine has announced its intention to transition to an alcohol-free site.”
“Argyle has moved into a new era of complex underground mining and transitioning to a dry camp is an important part of its future operating model.”
Mr Johnson would not provide specific details about when change occurred or whether the facility remained open without alcohol.
Resource analyst Peter Strachan described facilities at mining camps as the “icing on the cake”.
He said there was “no doubt there was a dash to get skills and people on a while back and the unions were in a very strong position to demand all sorts of benefits for FIFO workers in terms of accommodation and schedules”.
“The spending phase, when the focus was not on costs is over and companies are now paring back costs to ensure they can produce the returns they’d hoped for,” Mr Strachan said.
Since FIFO mining established itself in Western Australia in the late 1970s, the bar or on-site tavern - the wet mess - has been a regular feature within the camps where workers reside.
Mr Strachan said throughout the years an increased focus from human resources and occupational health and safety saw regulations applied to wet messes in an attempt to ensure workers did not drink to excess and were fit to work.
He said wet messes became a safety issue in the 1980s and 1990s and there was a move to restrict people to a “two-can” limit.
“The unions have brought this on in some ways... because the safety culture has become, in some ways, a sort of religion.
“It may be that the wet mess falls to the gods of safety.
“You don’t want drugs and alcohol coming into play when people are operating sophisticated machinery.”
CFMEU WA mining sector spokesman Gary Wood said employees were “basically desperate for employment with all the retrenchments going on” and the removal of a wet mess was “taking advantage of the current conditions”.
He said he did not support the removal of wet messes from camps, especially where workers were there for more than a week at a time because they were an integral part of creating a comfortable social environment and providing workers with a way to “wind down”.
According to 31-year-old FIFO truck driver ‘Simon’ who works at a mine in the Pilbara said that the removal of a wet mess would upset some but most would be reluctant to leave a job over it.
“The way that the industry is going, everyone is aware jobs are scarce, a few years ago people would change jobs if they didn’t have the right flavour of ice-cream but it’s not like that anymore,” he said.
In the past, Simon would often go for a drink when he worked longer rosters which included a 24-hour shift change break
“It was like your weekend,” he said.
Simon said workers are breath-tested every morning to ensure they did not still have alcohol in their system, so most did not drink to the point where it affected work.
“I know guys who go and have four or five drinks a night and wake up OK for work at 4am,” he said.
For some, especially older mine workers, the wet mess was a social hub where they spent most evenings.
Simon said that he hoped mines that chose to go dry, like Argyle, would keep the recreational facilities such as dart boards and pool tables, so that hub still remained.
Having worked for Rio Tinto in the past, he said it was not unusual for the company to roll out the same policies across all camps, and believes other wet messes at other Rio camps could also be on the chopping block.