A landmark probe into the social impacts of fly-in, fly-out jobs has likened the work to cancer.
But David Burger, a continent-crossing pipe-fitter based in the NSW city of Bathurst, has his own analogy of the increasingly popular lifestyle: he describes it as "a pair of golden handcuffs”.
“It’s not for everybody,” Mr Burger said.
“There are a lot of stories going about the flash lifestyle… I don’t have a lifestyle, I’m at home for five, six days a month, just to sleep.
“It’s hell on family life…you can ask my partner; ask the kids. Every time I come home, they’re that much taller.”
A federal parliamentary committee has spent the past 18 months examining the impacts of fly-in, fly-out (FIFO) work on community wellbeing, services and infrastructure in regional towns and cities.
Handing down the report today, independent MP Tony Windsor declared FIFO work “a cancer” for some areas.
“Despite the rapid increase in FIFO workers in Australia and the impact the practice is having on regional communities, state and federal governments and some companies appear to be oblivious to the damage that it’s causing to the lives of regional people… workers and their families,” Mr Windsor said.
The FIFO workforce mostly comprises miners, however it is also used to deliver other services to the bush, including health and education.
There has been growing disquiet that the FIFO phenomenon is wreaking serious social damage on communities where the workers temporarily stay.
“A large influx of non-resident workers is a permanent disruption to the social fabric and feeling of a town and this ‘shadow population’ has a serious and negative impact on the safety, image and amenity of communities,” the report noted.
There is also anecdotal evidence the FIFO lifestyle “can be accompanied by a range of damaging consequences for participants, such as relationship stress and breakdown, excessive alcohol and drug use, depression and violence amongst FIFO workers.”
An ‘us versus them’ mentality has also emerged, the inquiry found, something that did not surprise Mr Burger.
“We’re always outsiders. We are called leeches (and) it’s a very strange thing because they want your business and love your money but don’t really want you in town,” he said.
The parliamentary committee, chaired by Mr Windsor, travelled the country over the past 18 months to prepare the report, titled ‘Cancer of the bush or salvation for our cities?’.
The committee heard disturbing stories of people being pushed into FIFO work, children’s sporting teams being disbanded due to a lack of volunteers, doctors’ surgeries being unable to service residents and young women being afraid to walk the street of their home towns because of the number of young men in the area.
It was also told an influx of FIFO workers had triggered an explosion in property prices, with a three bedroom house in Moranbah or Port Hedland often commanding the same, double or even triple the rent of a property with water views in the exclusive Sydney suburb of Double Bay.
But the inquiry also heard FIFO work had allowed many Australians the opportunity to tap into the wealth of the mining industry without uprooting their families and social networks.
Minerals Council of Australia chief executive Mitch Hook said the report should be treated “with a deal of scepticism.”
“Likening FIFO to cancer will be offensive to those people who choose to fly-in and fly-out to work,” Mr Hook said in a statement.
“The report recommends a number of policy measures to deal with the FIFO ‘phenomenon’ despite acknowledging there is a ‘dearth of empirical evidence’ on long distance commuting. This is like a doctor prescribing medicine before diagnosing the patient.”
In 2011, a major study into the fly-in, fly-out culture found the practice was having a devastating effect on regional communities, as well as employees and their families.
The findings were largely similar to those of the report handed down today.
The rapid influx of thousands of non-resident employees into mining areas - mainly men - was negatively impacting on local economies, housing affordability, community safety and infrastructure, Queensland University of Technology Professor Kerry Carrington said in 2011.
The survey found communities were losing their sense of identity, while non-resident workers also were suffering from a lack of connection and separation from their families.
The parliamentary inquiry has made 21 recommendations to improve the FIFO culture, including a review of existing tax benefits that may be fuelling the popularity and spread of FIFO work.
Mr Hook said resources industry would oppose any move to change the tax system that applies to the FIFO sector.
While there is no national data on how many people jump on planes to find work, there were some 31,000 FIFO workers in Queensland’s Bowen and Surat basins as of June 2012, according to the Queensland Office of Economic and Statistical Research.
The Isaac Regional Council, in a remote but resources-rich area of Queensland, has estimated its residential population of 22,650 has nearly been equalled by the number of non-resident workers.