Thursday, December 30, 2010

That's not a mining boom...

Apparently there’s a mining boom going on. It’s pretty hard to tell from the inside; we’re all still just digging a hole and selling some of the stuff that comes out of it. It’s easy to tell when there’s a tourism boom going on: every shop suddenly sells fluffy koala toys, you need a phrase book to read the street signs and you have to check whether someone speaks English before you ask for directions (there’s a deep irony to the fact that someone will travel all the way here from downtown Beijing to buy a fluffy toy that was probably made in a factory three blocks from their house). Banking and finance booms are easy to spot too: wait two years and see if the country goes broke. It's not so obvious with mining though: since we’re good enough to dig holes a long way from everything so the noise doesn’t upset the chooks and the dust can’t blow all over your washing, nobody really notices much when mining is doing well.
There are a few subtle signs you can see if you look closely, like our pay packets doubling every ten minutes, and the government blathering about a ‘two-speed economy’. I’ve figured out what this means now: people in non-mining states can’t find work, and people in mining states get to pay thirty bucks for a soggy burger and a lukewarm cappuccino that tastes of dishwater.
It’s not just about overpriced soapy coffee though. Mining booms also mean a lot of long-term employees on older mines leaving for the bigger money and the ten minutes on/three years off roster at the new smegite mine they’re opening up round Koolyanobbing, or Sweatyanoboff or wherever it is. Nice work if you can get it, but good times for mining companies can mean tricky times for mine workers. In the bad times everyone’s happy to leave us alone out here to savour the pristine beauty of muddy salt flats, and the deep spiritual connection you feel with the land when you’re digging a ute full of rock samples out of an axle-deep bog. But along comes that mining boom and suddenly everyone wants a piece of the action. People abandon their day jobs, their comfy city life and apparently their senses and head for the nearest mine site, hoping to get a piece of the action before our Chinese friends figure out how to make cars out of bamboo and pandas instead of iron (the Koreans are a jump ahead of them here; Hyundai bodies are made exclusively from 100% recycled reality TV stars). Once upon a time you could be sure the bloke helping you service a bore pump had done the job before. Along comes mining boom and its “Worked on this model before mate?” “Um, no, we didn’t have many bore pumps at the coffee shop.” Didn’t matter when they hired him though, because a mining boom is accompanied by something called a ‘skills shortage’, which means a lot of people getting jobs they’re not qualified to do. Where I come from that’s called the IT department.
It won’t last though. Eventually there’s so much iron ore stockpiled in China that it starts to affect compasses in Alaska; they shut the factories down for a while and iron ore drops to five bucks a ton overnight. India loses interest in gold, or the Swiss banks decide to sell a few tons they, um, found a few years back, and suddenly we’re back to the bad old days of gold costing less per ounce than cabbage. The exploration teams turn up one morning to find the field office is now a plant nursery and would they all mind handing over their company mobiles please. Drilling companies fold faster than an origami teacher, house prices in mining states finally come within reach of the average millionaire and all the geologists with mortgages start looking very, very nervous.
But that’s fine by us. The coffee shop guy shorted out the bore pump last time. Those things aren’t cheap.

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