Miners drive COVID-19 migration (Financial Review Excerpt featuring REMSMART’s Allan Feinberg)
This excerpt was republished from the Australian Financial Review with permission.
Ray Chapman’s family didn’t think he was serious when, on the first day of this month, he warned that new limits on interstate travel could see them relocate 4500 kilometres away.
”My youngest daughter, who is 12 years old, came to me and said ‘Is this a late April Fools’ joke or what?”’ recalled the Rio Tinto iron ore worker
It was no joke. Within four days the Chapman family had packed its Brisbane home and boarded a flight to WA, arriving just hours before the state closed its borders.
They’re now serving two weeks of mandatory isolation in the WA town of Busselton, but the Chapmans are not alone. Thousands more Australians are adjusting to new lives in new states after the coronavirus triggered the hardest state borders since Federation, making it almost impossible to live in one state and work in another.
The situation has complicated Australia’s skills crisis and is providing states with a unique opportunity to poach talent and population from other parts of the nation.
State governments and industry groups were unable to say exactly how many Australians have moved interstate over the past month, but the available evidence suggests the tally exceeds 5000.
Mr Chapman is one of 800 Rio Tinto fly in, fly out (FIFO) workers who have relocated indefinitely to their state of work, with the vast majority of those shifting to WA.
More than 900 BHP workers have relocated to WA, and like the Chapman family most made the shift extremely swiftly.
“They put the call out on a Saturday afternoon about the possibility to relocate and they were on a plane by the Tuesday,” said Kirsty Timbury, the marine manager for BHP’s iron ore division.
While the biggest diaspora is from the eastern states to WA, the trend is national; gold miner Newmont has relocated about 60 employees to the Northern Territory so they can continue working at the remote Tanami mine.
OZ Minerals chief executive Andrew Cole said about 100 of his workers had relocated to South Australia to continue serving the company’s copper and gold mines.
The number of workers flying to Queensland resources projects from outside the state has slumped by 70 per cent since entry was restricted to only “critical” employees in statutory roles, according to the Queensland Resources Council.
Many of those no longer flying into Queensland for work are spending the winter in ”the sunshine state”, with zinc producer New Century basing its interstate workers in Cairns.
As the Chapman family demonstrates, the true number of people moving interstate over the past month is much higher than the employee relocation statistics provided by companies, as many workers have taken spouses and children with them.
Mr Chapman says the shift to WA was not compulsory; other options provided to him by Rio included an extended period of annual leave.
But Rio’s offer to help subsidise relocation of the family to WA proved to be the most appealing.
”I knew Rio flew [FIFO workers] out of Busselton on one of their charter flights, so I thought what a great idea to be in a quiet little town,” he said.
“I thought that would be a lot easier for my family to get around rather than the hustle and bustle of a city like Perth.”
BDO’s remuneration expert Allan Feinberg warned earlier this month that hard state borders could exacerbate an existing skills shortage in WA, where some mining industry roles were already fetching bigger salaries than at the peak of the resources boom.
KPMG’s global head of mining, Trevor Hart, said the resources industry and the WA government had a unique opportunity to convince the thousands of highly skilled new arrivals in the state to stay permanently.
“The industry would love to have those people based in Western Australia and expanding the skill base … and I know the state government would love to have more of those skills located in WA,” he said.
A spokesman for the WA government said there were ”no current plans to develop incentives to relocate these workers to WA permanently”.
Mr Chapman initially thought his family’s shift to WA would last about three months, but he already suspects it could be longer.
”I think we were being pretty optimistic about that, but we are just playing it by ear, we are going to reassess things as we go,” he said.
Asked if the shift to WA could be permanent, Chapman indicates the pull of extended family in Brisbane will always be strong.
”My mother and family live over there and my wife’s mother lives over in Brisbane as well, so it was pretty hard leaving them,” he said.
Confined to their waterfront house for two weeks of quarantine upon arrival in WA, Chapman said his family had passed the time by fishing off the back deck.
But the catch is set to dwindle from Monday morning, when his daughters start online lessons with their Brisbane school.
”On Monday they start their online learning, they have to email in to do their attendance, and the two-hour time difference is going to knock them around a bit,” said Mr Chapman.
Many FIFO workers face longer stints away from family this year, after most resources companies doubled or even tripled the length of rosters to reduce the volume of flying during the pandemic.
Mr Chapman is one of the lucky ones: he will work 14 days then have 14 days rest while in WA, which affords more family time than his previous 14 days on, seven days off roster.
Under his old roster, Mr Chapman spent two of his seven ”rest” days travelling across the continent, whereas he can fly between Busselton and the mines on a single flight of about three hours.
”That is another good reason to have the family here, I will be able to spend some quality time with them as well,” he said.