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* Australian mining boom pits small towns against growing
* Big salaries boost food prices, strain health services
* Housing in otherwise sleepy towns soars, forcing some to
share a single bed
By James Regan
MORANBAH, Australia, June 11 Despite a
six-figure salary, Russel Wise is worried he will soon be
homeless after receiving an eviction order from the one-room
trailer he has rented since taking a job in an Australian coal
mine in 2009.
"There aren't too many options around," says Wise, who like
thousands of other Australians, was lured to the little town of
Moranbah in the coal-rich northeast by high-paying jobs and in
the process triggered a housing crisis of big-city proportions.
"The owner wants to build more modern, multi-dwelling units
to house more people the mining companies can bring in and out
on rotation, so I've got to go. Simple as that," says Wise.
The property crunch engulfing Moranbah and other communities
peppering the Bowen Basin, a 60,000-sq-km (23,200-sq-mile)
moonscape of open pit mines supplying most of the world's coal
for steel making, is one of a swelling number of downsides
associated with the Australian mining boom.
Add to the list rising food prices, constant truck traffic,
outbreaks of sexually transmitted diseases and near-non-existent
health care to name a few, according to town residents, health
professionals, mine workers and community advocates interviewed
Jetting in employees on charter flights from mostly large
cities to work 12-hour shifts for two weeks straight and then
fly them home for a week off has long been commonplace in
Australia's remote mining locations, where no towns exist.
But the growing demand for commodities in Asia is
encouraging mining companies to dig deeper and faster than ever
before near established communities like Moranbah, requiring
thousands more workers than local townships can supply.
Mining company executives say they are trying to attract
more employees to move permanently to the towns with their
families to alleviate some of the problems associated with
mobile work forces, but it is proving a hard sell.
A recent survey of mine workers suggested at least half have
no interest in relocating permanently to mining towns, which can
be lacking in social outlets much beyond a local pub and
"This place is okay when you're working, but on a pyjama day
I'm bored stiff," says Richard Spaffey, who is sub-contracted to
a mining company based in his hometown of Perth, 3,600 km (2,200
miles) away, referring to a day off. "I'll head into town and
the ratio of men to women will be fifty to one."
PROSTITUTES SEE A ROLE
A prostitution advocacy group, called the Scarlet Alliance,
is appealing to the government for help in servicing the mining
communities, promoting regulated sex work as a safe alternative
to unsupervised liaisons that can cause the spread of disease.
By one government estimate, Australia will need an extra
89,000 mine workers over the next five years.
As a result, mining towns like Moranbah are bracing for even
greater population growth around the mines.
One of Australia's richest people, Andrew Forrest, who made
billions mining iron ore, is heading a group aiming to train
50,000 Australian Aboriginals to work the mines.
Also, despite opposition from unions, Prime Minister Julia
Gillard last month said more than 1,700 foreign workers could be
brought in to work constructing one mine alone under special
visas, underscoring the sector's dire need for labour and
opening the door to further jobs immigration.
In the United States and across Europe, jobs fairs promoting
work in Australia's resources sector already draw thousands of
"What this says loud and clear is that it is important for
resources sector companies to be able to offer accommodation
options," says Michael Roche, chief executive of the Queensland
Resource Council, which lobbies on behalf of coal mining.
Australia is also easing immigration rules for farm workers
applying for visas from Pacific islands like Papua New Guinea
and Fiji to compensate for an exodus of workers from sugarcane
fields to better paying mining jobs.
A programme is even under way to pay unemployed people to
move to rural mining communities to work jobs indirectly
connected to mining.
These too can be lucrative. In Moranbah, the local Dominoes
pizza shop can't find enough drivers to pay A$25 per hour to
make deliveries. On the outskirts of town, a billboard
advertises electricians' jobs starting at A$60 an hour. The
currency is roughly the same value as the U.S. dollar.
THREE TO A BED
John Wood, a property manager for Moranbah Real Estate, says
many of the town's long-term residents had sold their homes by
mid-2011 for hefty profits to investors now renting rooms for as
much as A$1,800 a week.
"In many cases, the mining company subsidises the rent, so
someone might only pay A$65 of that each week," he says. "It's
actually got kind of slow. There's not much left out there to
According to the Queensland Resources Council, 72 percent of
workers renting accommodation receive subsidies.
In some instances, this has led to "hotbedding" or sharing
of a single bed by up to three workers who stagger their shifts
to keep out of each other's way.
Mining companies are trying to keep up with the population
explosion by erecting thousands of modular workers' "villages"
around the towns, but are seen doing little else to alleviate
burdens on the community.
"Almost universally, people have noticed that FIFO (fly in,
fly out) workers have increased levels of mental stress and
mental illnesses (and) quite significant increases in alcohol
and other drugs," Dr David Mountain, of the Australian Medical
Association, told a parliamentary hearing in April.
Dr Reyno Nieuwoudt doubts few if any of the four doctors
working at his private clinic on a Moranbah side street will be
around by the end of the year, driven away by the workload.
"On average, we'll see up to 70 patients a day each and
that's way too many," Nieuwoudt says. "That's way above the
healthy average and quite frankly impossible to sustain."
Last week, the doctor who ran Moranbah's only other medical
clinic closed and moved away. The town has been without a
dentist for more than a year.
"At this pace, I won't be here much longer either,"
As more mines are dug, there is a growing belief in Moranbah
that mining companies prefer mobile work forces because it
relieves the company of a responsibility to provide housing.
But Stephen Dumble, asset president of BMA, a joint venture
between BHP Billiton and Mitsubishi which
operates six coal mines, says BMA is constantly trying to
recruit permanent residents. They are cheaper in the long run,
because non-resident employees mean higher turnover, boosting
costs for recruitment and training.
A survey by the regional council of Isaac, which takes in
the Bowen Basin, suggests non-resident workers on average last
about 18 months before becoming "tired" and quitting.
"Over the next two years, we will build 383 houses and
townhouses across Central Queensland and we are spending A$54
million refurbishing a further 450 family homes," Dumble says.
(Editing by Nick Macfie)