Money and dreams in Australia’s outback
Shooting the vast Australian outback had been my goal ever since I first arrived in Sydney. After three years I finally had the opportunity — a Special Report (a Reuters’ investigative story) on a worker shortage in the middle of Australia’s mining boom. My destination, Karratha, is a small town in Australia’s northwest.
After a more than 6 hour flight from Sydney, from one corner of Australia to the other, I touched down into a landscape exactly as I had imagined. The land was littered with red iron ore rocks, clear blue skies stretched with an immensity you only feel at sea, and trains, huge trains, hauled iron ore from the mines to be loaded onto ships bound for China.
This remote region called the Pilbara is at the center of Australia’s mining boom. But with more than AUD$400 billion in new resource projects on the drawing board, miners are struggling to find people who want to live and work in this harsh environment, despite offering wages in the six figures for truck drivers and construction workers – more than Australian doctors and lawyers earn.
But the high wages mean sky-high rents in outback towns in the Pilbara region – something we quickly discovered when we drove into the Aboriginal “dry town” of Roebourne, where alcohol has been banned due to high rates of domestic violence. After hours of driving, we found a bed in Roebourne in a dirty hotel room for $230 a night, with a can of insecticide in case of a midnight attack by some weird Aussie pest.
In outback towns which before the mining boom struggled to exist, we met workers from around the world — French, South Africans, Germans, Koreans, New Zealanders, and of course lots of Australians. All of them came to the outback with different dreams, but the same objective: earn the money to make those dreams come true.
Wages may be very good, gardeners earn AUD$30 an hour, cleaners $25 to $30 an hour and semi-skilled workers around $100,000 a year, but it’s not easy money and the living is definitely not easy.
With little accommodation, groups of 10 to 15 people live in 3 bedroom houses for $2,000 a week rent. Thousands live in mine camps where shipping containers have been converted into rooms with tiny bathrooms. While others live for months in caravans or in the backyard of their workplaces.
High rents and a lack of accommodation means lots of mine workers operate on a fly-in, fly-out scheme with companies paying for monthly flights between the mines and Perth, the closest city at more than 1,500 kilometers south (932 miles). With an international airport located within 2 hours drive at Port Hedland, some workers fly to the Indonesian resort island of Bali for the weekend. Some even fly to Ireland to spend a fortnight with their loved ones after 12 weeks of non-stop work.
Life in the mine camps can be “soul-destroying” said a woman who works on a gas plant and asked not to be identified. “Your room is your solitary space. You get lonely, a sense of being separated from loved ones and family,” she said.
We met her as she and a friend enjoyed “the staircase to the moon”, a spectacular natural phenomenon when the full moon reflects on the low tide in the Burrup Peninsula – just one of the natural rewards for enduring the harsh outback life.
But time for relaxation is brief. Waking up in a mine camp means your workplace is at your doorstep — handy for the 10 to 12 hours shifts. “You just have the time to come back to your room, get changed, have dinner, have a shower, watch a bit of TV, call the family and you go back to sleep and wake up at 4 o’clock in the morning, and it’s another day for you,” said another female worker.
Bangladeshi Monish lives in a caravan to save money for his upcoming wedding. He arrived in Karratha two years ago, with a diploma in building and mechanical drafting, and now gets paid $35 an hour in an aluminum welding factory, for a 40 to 45 hour week. Monish will soon fly home to meet his wife, after his parents helped select some candidates, and will bring his new wife to Karratha where they will start a family.
“If you work hard you’ll get more money and you’ll have good future,” Monish told me. His words echo that of Australian Treasurer Wayne Swan who said in his May 10 budget speech: “We believe in the Australian promise that if you work hard you won’t be left behind”.
After spending five days driving in the long, empty outback and talking to mine workers like Monish, I realized that the dream of a better life is an integral part of Australia’s mining boom – but it’s a dream that takes a lot of hard work and sacrifice.