It's still a fraught situation for women in FIFO - but not always in the ways you might think

A Courier Mail story on the lifestyle of a female Australian fly-in, fly-out (FIFO) worker on social media was led with this headline: “World's hottest truckie’ reveals insane salary." The accompanying image shows the truck driver named Ashlea (who works at a remote mine site in Western Australia) dressed in a bikini. The article goes on to detail “her insane six-figure salary” and “awesome life”. 

It’s a mostly one-dimensional image of what it’s like to be employed in the mining industry from a female perspective—even if it briefly mentions the hot and severe weather, the long days, and the general isolation associated with FIFO. Little is said about the true costs and sacrifices of this line of work, as well as the problems endemic to the overall lifestyle. 

The angle taken in the Courier Mail article is one that overtly focuses on sexual appeal, and one could easily argue that this only serves to support the objectification of women as a driving and sustaining force of gender oppression. The nature of sexual objectification is that it is intrinsically linked to sexual harassment, sexual assault and violence against women. 

You only have to look at The Western Australian Government's response to The Community Development and Justice Standing Committee Report 2: "Enough is Enough" 2022 to recognise how real and obvious these dangers are. Described as “shocking reading” by the Minister for Resources and Northern Australia, Madeleine King, the report showed that women accounted for 74 percent of mining workers who reported sexual harassment at work.

Some of the main responses to the report so far have been to develop a code of practice to help improve security measures for employees who stay at workplace accommodations, as well as plans for a 24/7 hotline that will be a ‘triage point’ for complaints. But it's still unclear if women's lives in mining and FIFO are changing for the better and what those changes should include on a fundamental level. 

Julie (last name withheld to preserve anonymity) is a white-collar worker, employed predominantly in the construction side of the FIFO industry. She works for “top tier contractors undertaking projects for the 'big guys' like Rio Tinto and BHP.” According to Julie, she works long swings, and her flights and accommodation are controlled by the client, giving her less flexibility in how she negotiates a work/life balance.

She recounts an incident that references a particular type of cultural disparity in the industry. “I was once working in a large office, and I had just finished my lunch and was quickly wiping down my desk to clean off the crumbs and mess I had made from my meal. An older gentleman in a high management position came in and spoke to me, making the assumption that I was the Peggy, i.e., the cleaner,” she says. 

For Julie, this “reinforced the idea that there are, or at least were, many men in the industry that assume that women are only on mine sites for roles like cleaning and administration. This attitude obviously still exists, but it's in the minority now,” she says. As for the extra measures that are being put in place by the government, she says we shouldn’t have to need them. “We need to address the cause, which is systemic sexism in the industry, and not put things in place that further separate men from women,” she says. 

Hayli Hooper, a former FIFO utility worker, agrees that men and women working in the mining industry shouldn't be treated differently. Hayli now works as a nurse in Perth, but she remembers her first stint in the mines vividly, at a time when there were barely any women in camps—except in administration. 

“I remember walking into mess and getting food and sitting down and being alone every single meal while most other tables were full—not because guys were being rude. Guys were scared to approach women on site because of how much emphasis there was on not offending women, so they were so scared of saying the wrong thing that they just wouldn’t talk,” she says. 

The interactions Hayli had with her male coworkers were strange, but obviously not in the way one might imagine. Her anecdote in no way diminishes the very real cases of serious misdemeanours against women highlighted in the “Enough is Enough” report and in numerous other instances. It does, however, offer a fresh perspective on what it's like for a woman on a mining site and points to yet another layer of separation in a lifestyle already rife with loneliness. 

For women working in mining, the remote location and the draining psychological effects of the FIFO roster are predominant issues. Hayli says she feels for families as she realises they would miss a lot of their children’s milestones as well as for couples, although she says “it could be amazing if your rosters line up.” 

For Julie, being able to work on occasion alongside her husband has been a critical factor in maintaining her resilience. “FIFO is a dangerous game. At times, it can be incredibly challenging and requires a lot of mental toughness. Other times, it's very rewarding and gives a sense of security. I am incredibly lucky that I sometimes get to work on the same site as my husband. This has been absolutely integral to me staying mentally healthy,” she says. 

One thing that is glaringly apparent, and this applies to men as much as it does to women—and, indeed, across all the sexes—is that the FIFO lifestyle is not nearly as glamorous as the Courier Mail article might suggest. Both Julie and Hayli are quick to give their warnings about the importance of having what might be termed a ‘FIFO game plan’. 

According to Hayli, she would do FIFO again, depending on a set of controlled parameters. “If I had a partner, I would have clear communication, stay engaged, and set time apart for each other. I don’t think FIFO is a healthy long-term career move. I think it’s especially appropriate for the young ones wanting to travel or those wanting to buy stability in life through purchasing property, etc. However, I would tell people to only do it if they are mentally strong and have the ability to love time alone,” she says. 

Julie leaves us with these words of warning. “I’m saving every cent and putting my wages into paying off my mortgage so that when the time comes to leave the industry, I have something to show for it. No job is worth losing relationships or having long-term mental or physical health problems. Don't go into debt on the assumption that you'll keep earning the big bucks. Because you never know when you'll reach that 'line'. But when you reach it, you need to be able to walk away from the game.”