Why you should care
Unless you’re cleaning crappers in a mine, you’re probably feeling pretty good about yourself right now.
I was desperate. I’m American but I had come to Australia on a one-year working holiday-maker visa and ended up having an unlucky streak in Melbourne — not an easy place to live despite being named the world’s most livable city five years straight.
Melbourne is also one of the world’s most expensive cities, and while the national minimum wage is $17.70, I ended up overworked and underpaid on the salaries of two deplorably paid jobs: $15 an hour cash-in-hand cleaning with a potentially illegal Korean cleaning company, and $17.50 an hour as a cashier at a takeaway salad bar. Melbourne’s hospitality industry hadn’t been interested in my humanities background, so by the time I left the city, I had managed to save only a few hundred dollars.
I was shortchanged, but I knew others had it worse. Asian friends told me they barely expected more than $12 an hour. The agriculture industry, maintained by temporary-visa holders, had been exposed as an epicenter of slave-like conditions. Backpackers claim to have suffered sexual harassment on Queensland farms; I had even reported on sexual harassment cases of backpackers in Melbourne for Am-Unity magazine.
For many, Australia isn’t always the easily navigated, lucrative stopover between backpacking Asian countries that it’s made out to be. I was drowning in my own resentment toward the world’s love for this country. But then I heard about jobs in a uranium mine.
I had no experience in the mining industry, no experience in any sort of physical labor job. But the mines were looking for cleaners. That kept me out of the more dangerous work — what the local Aboriginal population called their “sickness country,” since, they said, anyone who went there died. I was only cleaning but still had to wear a lot of safety gear, and I’m almost certain that I was lied to by the corporation because there are tons of terrible effects of uranium. They had safety seminars and told us all the time that they were at a “manageable” level.
But I was happy with the salary. You see, the mining industry, which “boomed” in the early 2000s, was commended as the ticket to overflowing wealth that would trickle down to the whole country. From the start, there were skeptics like the Australia Institute, but most people became steadfast believers in the industry.
Truck drivers were taking home $200,000 Australian dollars a year, 20-year-olds were buying mansions and boats and with the influx of labor came the need for fly-in, fly-out (FIFO) camps, essentially pop-up villages, which quickly became notorious for drugs and prostitution. With the FIFO camps came the need for contracted hospitality companies, jam-packed with cleaners, to service them, and the mining boom soon touched another sector of workers.
I never expected to find myself at a mine in the middle of the croc-infested Northern Territory, sleeping by day, fighting off dingoes by night …
The mine I worked at wasn’t even directly connected to the mining boom — it was already extracting uranium in the 1980s — but that didn’t save it from the global market collapse of the past few years that destroyed the rest of them. In a terrifying swap, the promise of prosperity became devastation. Redundancy meant families across Australia who had banked on the endless flow of cash found themselves with assets they would never be able to pay off. The emotional damage of the mining industry is even more tragic, with reports of FIFO suicides being swept under the table.
Our product, uranium, wasn’t special enough to be immune from the global market downturn. Plagued by the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, the market still hasn’t been able to recover. This, combined with concerns over rehabilitation costs of its closure in the coming years, has affected more than just the mines’ shareholders and direct employees. The hospitality companies servicing the FIFO camps were invariably affected as well.
In an attempt to cut costs, my mine had just cut ties with one contractor and opted for another, one that provided the same hospitality service for a fraction of the cost. The employees would be the first to notice the change: The new company asked them to stay for the transition, despite offering them less than half of their current salary. It was, unsurprisingly, an unsuccessful attempt.
But in an unfolding of what felt like uncanny fate, the week I drove into a FIFO — dusty from the road and stinking like I’d been eating, urinating and showering in a backpacker car for the past five weeks — was the same week that the new hospitality company was hustling to fill the vacant positions for its “mobilization” (a term used to describe a takeover) the following week. A FIFO hospitality job, at least in anecdotes, was coveted for its pay and tax benefits; it was a competitive industry to enter. And yet, despite my lack of relevant experience, I was hired.
The handful of mine employees who’d had no other choice but to stay were understandably bitter at the mine’s downturn and its effect on their salaries. But I was finally convinced, after five previous months of low wages, under-the-table work and living hand to mouth, that Australia was a grand country all along. I just hadn’t been able to see it.
While they suffered the byproducts of an industry’s collapse, I benefited from its demise. They were making half their normal salary; I was making double what I’d ever made.
As the sun set over the bush, my workmates and I would pass a stream of “utes,” or utility vehicles, on their way back to the FIFO camp. We’d linger a few minutes while we crossed a bridge, a workmate scanning the water below for crocodiles. We’d make it to the mine site and get out of the car in time to cross paths with the few day-shift workers still there. “Have a good shift!” they’d call out.
I never expected to find myself at a mine in the middle of the croc-infested Northern Territory, sleeping by day, fighting off dingoes by night, but as we passed through security, with a swift motion, I’d smooth back my hair and put on my helmet. One workmate turned to me and instructed, “Tonight we’re just going to spot-clean, no mopping.”
“Yeah, they’re not paying us enough for this shit,” the other added. I caught a familiar tone of resentment in their voices. A tone powerful enough to justify a purposeful lack of work ethic. A reason to bitch out the management and curse one’s hapless lot.
It wasn’t just that mine that suffered; it was all of Australia. But after working there for just three months — 70 hours a week, two weeks on, one week off, food and accommodation provided — I walked away with AU$16,000. The Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection doesn’t keep statistics on visa holders once they’re in the country, but given the reports of widespread exploitation, I sense I benefited more than most on the same visa.
While I worked at the mine, I felt the tension. I heard people scheming to ask for wage increases and threatening to quit at the slightest disagreement. I saw people, like my workmates, doing a sloppy job out of anger. My sense of accomplishment, despite the twinges of guilt for something out of my control, remained unaltered. I needed the money.