Union questions  the use of FIFOs

THE mineworkers union is up in arms over Whitehaven Coal’s plans to use fly-in fly-out (FIFO) workers at its Maules Creek mine east of Narrabri.

More than 140 workers were recently retrenched from nearby Whitehaven and Idemitsu mines in the Gunnedah Basin and the union says it should employ these people before hiring FIFO workers.

Whitehaven exports through Newcastle and its largest shareholder, with 19.4 per cent of the company, is businessman Nathan Tinkler.

Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union district secretary Grahame Kelly said the union had called on the state government to stop approving temporary worker accommodation villages until it had policies in place to manage the FIFO process.

He welcomed action taken last week by the councils’ peak body, Hunter Councils, which called on Premier Barry O’Farrell to revise planning laws in relation to FIFO and workers’ camps.

Lake Macquarie mayor Jodie Harrison told the Hunter Councils’ meeting of concerns about the social impact of FIFO practices on families and communities.

Maules Creek was dragged into the FIFO debate last week when Whitehaven issued a breakdown of its workforce highlighting that almost 85 per cent – or 513 of 617 employees – were “locally based’’ in the Gunnedah, Narrabri, Tamworth and Liverpool Plains local government areas.

But Whitehaven managing director Paul Flynn said the company’s workforce would expand to more than 1000 in the next five years and FIFO workers would still be needed at Maules Creek and other mines.

“At times these large employment numbers will require a fly-in-fly-out contractor component, particularly during construction, and there is no viable alternative to this combination of employment options,’’ Mr Flynn said.

He said Whitehaven’s local workforce would be supplemented by specialist contractors, mostly on a FIFO basis.

“This is particularly the case with the development of our Maules Creek mine, which will require a workforce of up to 340 full-time-equivalent employees and contractors during the 18-month construction phase,’’ Mr Flynn said.

“It would be almost impossible to find this many skilled employees locally for the relatively short time required, and that is where FIFO, or drive-in-drive-out, have a role to play.

“As we move out of construction and into production at Maules Creek, we plan to quickly and successfully transition to a higher proportion of local employment.’’

Like other coal companies Whitehaven has struggled in the past year with falling prices and rising costs.

Its shares closed at $2.12 on Friday, up from last month’s record low of $1.84 but well down on its $3.50 price at the start of the year, and the $5.20 a share price where Tinkler Group had pitched an eventually abandoned takeover bid midway through last year.

The union disagreed with Whitehaven’s claim it would be unable to find enough workers locally, saying hundreds of northern district mineworkers had lost their jobs in recent months. 

“A reliance on FIFO at Maules Creek should set off alarm bells throughout NSW’s coal mining belt,’’ Mr Kelly said.

– From the Newcastle Herald

FIFO CONCERNS: On the ground at Whitehaven Coal’s Maules Creek mine.

FIFO CONCERNS: On the ground at Whitehaven Coal’s Maules Creek mine.