Monday, April 23, 2012

Mining jobs for all!

It’s looking like being a beautiful day in the fast lane of the two-speed economy. The traffic’s light, so the limo’s got me to the airport in plenty of time to kick back in the transit lounge before the plane takes us to our mine in the Western Australian desert. My favourite masseuse is on Sabbatical at her ashram; luckily her twin sister is there so I get a back-and-shoulders refresher while I read the breakfast menu. I go for the salmon eggs benedict with carrot and ginger juice, thank Adele for the massage and stake out a space on one of the big recliners.
"Thank you Adele. In lieu of payment, you may touch my stubble." 

 Breakfast rolls up just as my colleagues start trickling in. A few of the truckies turn up together; they’re not on the big bucks so they’ve had to share a charter jet back from the company’s deep sea fishing resort up north. Our new office girl is right behind them; I see the valet drive her cute little Aston Martin away to the car park just as she comes in. I’m a little disappointed to see our HR coordinator forced to carry her own bag to the check-in counter, but it’s seafood day at the mine so most of the valets are busy loading the lobster and prawns into the plane.

Lobster thermidor. Or, in the mining industry, breakfast

There’s a good little crowd gathered by the time the airport manager sidles in to inform us our flight is closed and we’ll be boarding shortly. The conversation is flowing nicely; a couple of the process technicians have revived their old debate over whether their new Carreras are genuine Porsches, the geologists are still arguing the merits of New York vs. London stock brokers and our mine manager is telling a couple of the engineers about his latest purchase. Exactly what he plans to do with twelve acres in central London I don’t know, but I’m sure he’ll figure it out.
Seriously? Canary yellow? TRACTION CONTROL?

The boarding call comes early so I’m forced to throw down the last of my coffee and grab a couple of danishes from the trolley as we head for the gate. Not being management means sitting I’m in cattle class, and the dessert selection back there is always a bit light-on for decent pastries. The wine’s still free though so it’s hard to complain. I nibble on a corner of an apricot-and-coconut as the golf carts take us across the tarmac to the waiting Dreamliner.
Oh sure, it's spacious, but the service is excellent.
There’s the usual  buzz on board as we head for our seats. Half of the managers have already got their seats laid flat, the hosties arranging their pillows and blankets as we squeeze past. Our engineering manager’s already asleep; his personal assistant deftly slips the champagne glass from his hand without waking him. By the time I get to my seat, everyone else is already settled, so I grab an iPad out of the overhead locker and get strapped in.
The hostie barely has time to get me my warm towel by the time we’re taxiing. The guy in the next seat is only a metre away in the back rows of the plane so I don’t have to shout too loud to talk to him as the engines spool up. I haven’t seen him before so I ask what he does.
“Construction manager,” he replies. “I’m coming up to help build your bowling alley.”
I nod. “First mine site?”
“Nope, third. I was at Leinster, but they went on a cost-cutting drive. They took away the personal lap pools and increased working hours to seven a day.”
I whistle low. “They must have lost a lot of people.”
“Dozens! But it got worse. They cut people’s packages soon after I left; the receptionist was only on two hundred thousand, plus fifty grand site loading, free health care and a car.” He shakes his head. “They took the car off her. Crazy.”
I shrug. “They’ll regret it. As if anyone can get by in Perth on less than a six-figure wage. My golf club memberships alone costs twenty grand!”
“Yeah, and it’s worse for the new guys. Six of my mates asked me to get them jobs on the mines last week. I, uh...”
I stare in mild shock. “You DID get them jobs, didn’t you?”
“Oh sure,” he adds quickly. “I told the mine manager and he created six new jobs on the spot for them, plus three more in case they wanted to bring some of their friends. But...yeah, two of them are scuba instructors and one is a chicken farmer, so, bit tricky finding something to match their skill sets. They had to settle for field technician work on a hundred and fifty. It’s the thin edge of the wedge,” he says grimly. “We’ll be expecting people to have useful skills before you know it.”
"I'm here about the diesel fitter job?"
I nod. “Just lucky mining companies don’t pay tax.”
The drinks cart rolls through before he can answer. Amber smiles as she hands me my usual sauvignon blanc and sashimi plate and I settle back to enjoy the ride. Of course, my head’s nodding by the time we reach cruising altitude, so once Amber’s ghosted through and cleared my tray I lie the seat right back and close my eyes.

The bump of wheels on runway jars me awake. The snoring lard mountain sitting next to me has encroached on my personal space during the flight, so there’s an arm in my lap that looks like somebody tattooed a ham. The air is like the exhaust from a service station bathroom fan, and the last handful of flies are still buzzing listlessly against the windows. Down the front, the lone flight attendant in the tiny fold-up seat has that look that little girls get when they discover unicorns aren’t real and most boys aren’t interested in buying them ponies. She grimaces as the clatter of gravel on the underside of the plane stops and we bump our way to the terminal.
Wait, what?

The pilot clambers back out of the sardine-tin cockpit and cracks the door open with a noise like opening a stale Coke can. Flight attendant puts on her best big-girl face as we file out, thanking us for flying with them in a way that suggests we had a choice. The subtext of course is that she does, and you better believe she’ll jump ship to a real airline the minute she can get out of this propeller-driven nightmare in the sky.

Dust and heat outside. Grim faces stare back from beyond the fence as we trudge across the baking concrete to the tin shed terminal. Smirking flyer-outers welcome surly flyer-inners with tales of unfinished jobs, of broken machines, broken workers and broken promises of leave before summer takes us up past forty degrees in the shade before breakfast. I skip the welcome-back banter, head for the tired old bus and choose one of the last seats with an intact seatbelt. A couple of the older techs are already on board, talking animatedly about whether Ben Cousins is a legend or a bloody legend. The bus driver climbs wearily aboard before they resolve the issue, and we creak our way across five miles of potholes to camp.
"Move to the back please."

The dinner crowd’s thinned out a little by the time we get back to the mining camp. The menu holds promise for the naive; seasonal vegetable soup, beef rendang and herbed roast chicken. Which translates as “last night’s vegies, last night’s roast beef and some half-thawed boilers dusted with dried oregano powder.” At least the luncheon meat looks like it’s been sliced this week, so I throw a little of that on some bread and drown any remaining traces of evil in tomato sauce.
It’s hot on the way back to my room. There's no breeze, so the dust storm kicked up by the trucks hangs in the air, coating everything with a gritty red film. The not-quite-stale biscuit I grabbed for dessert tastes like sand and disappointment. The menu for tomorrow said frozen vegetables and slow-cooked cow tendons though, so I figured I’d better grab what I could while I could. It can be a long time between dinners if you get too picky.
"Soup's a bit sandy tonight."

My room’s a sauna. Several years in the job gets me one of the best rooms on site, but the best suite in the Kabul Hilton still comes with a view of the craters and hot and cold running artillery fire, so it’s a bit relative. Once my eyebrows stop smouldering I kick back on the chair outside and wait for the air con to bring things down below forty. A couple of my neighbours drift by, conversing idly about the weather. Every second word is ‘hot’, every third word is ‘fucking’, leaving just enough words to complain about their bosses, the food, the camp, the TV and other matters that preoccupy the higher minds responsible for driving our trucks. I’ve got my boots off by the time they’re gone; I’d leave them by my door, but the bag I use to keep the snakes and scorpions out has a centipede coiled on top of it, so I let it lie.
"Oh, hai!"

My room’s cool enough after twenty minutes so I open the flyscreen a crack and slip through, managing to keep all but about a dozen of my personal cloud of flies outside. They buzz up to the fluoro to pay respect to their dead buddies inside the light cover, leaving me in peace while I try to negotiate my ten square metres of possessions arranged across eight square metres of floor.
Still, it’s better than being at work. As usual, Mister Mining Boom brought his annoying buddy Mister Skills Shortage with him, so every day’s a matter of everyone trying to do two people’s jobs in between shuffling through endless resumes from shop assistants, bus drivers and other hopefuls trying to ‘break in’ to the mining industry. The jail metaphor’s more accurate than they realise, not that we’d tell them; the glamour starts and ends at the website homepage, and there’s a time when the best pay package in the world doesn’t make up for staying on site another week because your opposite number forgot to tell you he decided to blow a week’s salary on a surprise trip to Vegas for the missus and would you mind covering for me?

"Hi guys. Having a great time, wish you were here. Oh, I forgot to service the sewage pond overflow pumps, sooo, yeah..."

All of which is just fine. There’s a real sense of satisfaction from knowing you’re doing your bit to help some  pitiless billionaire plunder the nation’s resources.  It’s all nicely organised of course; we get special Plundering Licences issued by an unelected committee of faceless bureaucrats. Each year we get to decide whether to use the licence to steal lollipops from babies, rob pensioners at ATMs or dig up rocks; mostly we go with the latter because there are never enough pensioners around when you stake out an ATM. There’s an endless supply of comedy gold in the envirofascists’ bleating about the terrible damage we do too; it keeps us smiling when we’re forced to abandon an entire project because of a new species of underground beetle, or when we’re digging up our own rubbish tip because the law says we can’t bury soy milk cartons any more. Finding them in amongst all the barrels of dioxin, radioactive waste and baby dolphin carcasses is no easy feat but hey, the law is the law.
But we love it. Five hundred miles from speed cameras, traffic jams, overpriced lunch bars and politicians, we get to live and work the way we want, because most people would come out here, take one look and get straight back on the plane. It’s not a life for everyone, but it’s like any other job: if you can do something that’s useful on a mine site, wait for an ad and lob your resume into the mix. And by ‘useful’ I don’t mean bus driver, pastry chef or line dancing instructor. In order, we have enough, we don’t need any and yes I’m talking to YOU, Sally from Queensland. You look lovely in the cowboy hat, PVC chaps and bugger-all else, but please stop sending me your, uh, pictorial resume.
Selection for the lab technician role involved a gruelling three-hour dance-off.
Everyone else, if you’re someone we can use, and you’ve got the kind of mojo it takes to work in the wilderness, we might just give you a go. It can be tough out there away from family and friends and regular line dancing lessons, but for some folks, it’s s good as it gets. And I look forward to squeezing into that tiny plane to fly out to a soulless industrial site in the desert, because knowing my slightly-above-average mining-boom salary means I’ll be able to pay off my well-above-average mining-boom mortgage a year earlier makes it all okay.

1 comment:

  1. Awesome Dunn! Love it. So so true :)