Post #39 – How Skype Helps Large Mining Companies Not Give A Shit

I have family and friends alike who have been fortunate enough to cash-in on Australia’s mining boom. Even though it looks like the ‘boom’ might finally be petering out, there’s still money to be made. But the golden goose doesn’t seem to be laying the golden eggs anymore… and I personally blame Skype.

You see, Skype and other forms of new technology have helped the mining industry break barriers that have existed ever since this country has had white folk in it. These barriers have been…

  • Isolation – Australia is a fucking big country. Its vast distances meant that a mining town (i.e. Broken Hill or Ballarat) was permanent and therefore needed investment and infrastructure. Otherwise labour wouldn’t be enticed to live and work near or at the mines.
  • Community – This investment fostered a sense of community and camaraderie in these mining towns, so much so that the employees banded together.
  • The Workers – United together they formed associations and unions to increase economic and political influence for the betterment of their lot in life, their community, and last but not least…
  • The Nation – The royalties, tax collection and economic stimulation played a large part in making Australia one of the richest and opulent nations’ the world has ever seen.

This has historically been the story of mining in Australia. However, today all those barriers the mining industry had faced that held back its unquenchable thirst for profits have crumbled before our very eyes. Mining communities are desolate and temporary; the nation is broke whilst the mining companies got away with record profits; the unions are in free-fall and the workers are being laid off in their hundreds on a weekly basis; and well… isolation just ain’t what it used to be. Skype makes isolation bearable and manageable. Technology has transformed the mining industry – distance is no longer the dreaded dragoon it used to be.

TECHNOLOGIC: Advances in technology may seem like it benefits the workers involved in the mining industry around this big ‘n’ brown country, but in reality technology merely signifies a massive shift in power to share-holders and vested interests at the expense of the workers and the wider community. Technological tools like Skype subtly help mask over the mining industry’s emphasis on short-term gains over long-term results and implications. The development and adoption of information and communication technologies has had a distorting effect on Australia’s latest mining boom, predominantly on those we refer to as FIFO workers.

WHAT’S A ‘FIFO’?: The adoption of the popular acronym ‘FIFO’ (Fly-in, Fly-Out) into the common Australian vernacular speaks volumes to the impact that this newly defined type of work has had on this new phase of capitalism. What FIFO essentially is is a method of employing people in remote areas by flying them in temporarily to the work area instead of relocating the employees and their families permanently. The ‘DIDO’ (Drive-In, Drive-Out) follows the same principle. It’s the most common form of employment in Australia’s mining town these days – with various positive and negative effects.

THIS IS ONLY A FLING:  The large mining companies that have artificially created a market for and employ FIFO workers behave in a world where modern corporations no longer provide long-term stability, benefits, social capital or interpersonal trust. This era of ‘new capitalism‘ places a heavy emphasis on a morbid fascination with continuous economic growth. With a shifting of power to shareholders and an ever-vigorous emphasis on short-term gains, Australia’s mining and resources companies have morphed into nimble, economically flexible and highly mobile firms that are able to mine and move on in record speed. Long gone are the days of corporate-government hybrids that “appeared to be securely entrenched, the product of centuries of economic development and nation building”. To put it bluntly, the social guarantees previously provided by successive Australian governments is breaking down – the state no longer provides the strong safety nets it once did.

It used to go like this. Although there was always tension, there was a steady partnership between the forces of business, labour and citizens in those resource dependent towns. Look no further than the massive investments in such towns and cities as Ballarat, Bathurst, Broken Hill and Melbourne through the mining booms/gold rush of times gone by. In particular, Ballarat still has some of the most striking Edwardian and Victorian architecture in the Southern Hemisphere, and used to boast an efficient tram-line service throughout this little country city.  For a more stark reminder abroad, look no further than Detroit – a once wealthy and grand city built around the auto-mobile is now decaying, abandoned and broke. The unspoken ‘accord’ between the forces of capital, labour and government has dissipated. It’s now each for their own.

Within Australia, the rise of a neoliberal economic doctrine since the 1980’s, coupled with a mining boom fuelled by China’s thirst for minerals resources in the new century has helped etch out a place in the Australian workforce for the FIFO/DIDO type of employment. Particularly within the last 5 years, the FIFO/DIDO model has pioneered a change in the world of work toward the malleable and the personal. To meet quarterly targets and reduce costs these mining companies rapidly build up work forces, which can just as quickly be dismantled.

THE ROBOTS ARE COMING: By focusing on short-term profit and a hyper-growth style of capitalism, the balance of power tips towards the employer at the expense of the employees. With their ability to invest in complex technology, the workers are not only temporary, but also increasingly redundant.

Technology allows companies such as Rio Tinto to deploy driverless dump trucks at iron ore mines across Australia to “slash costs and enhance safety through automation”. Technological advancements also allow large mining sites to be supervised centrally from digitised control rooms far away from the actual mine, and increasingly on hand-held devices which allows for “status assessments of process operations in a single glance”.

The crazy part about what is happening is that we are collectively designing ourselves out of a job.  This new technology ‘de-skills’ these mine workers “who now tend, as the electronic janitors of robotic machines, complex tasks the workers once performed themselves”. These new technological advancements in the last few years have also transformed the way communication is conducted – not just by the firms but also by the workers themselves. The game is changing, and like always, it seems that the workers are the ones losing out.

IT’S ON YOU: With the proliferation of various methods of electronic communication available these days, the gap between the reality in suburbia and the reality in these mines located in the middle of woop woop considerably diminish. Technological advancements like digital satellite phones, the Internet and video calls help eradicate the perception of distance. Technology such as Skype helps the corporate-friendly FIFO business model function by placing the onus on the individual and their own acquired technology to maintain relationships with friends and family who are sometimes many hundreds of miles away.

In turn, this “legacy of personal responsibility deflects anger away from economic institutions” and this level of social dislocation inevitably leads to frustration being directed towards family and friends of the employee – or even themselves. The abnormally high rates of suicide amongst FIFO workers may reflect people coming “to know such dislocations as their own lack of direction”. The time spent in isolation in these temporary mining towns – without the support of their employer, their family, their government, or their fellow workers – may be the most depressing characteristic and legacy of Australia’s most recent mining boom. Social tools like Skype merely give the impression that technology can fill the void left after the barriers have been broken. The cold, hard reality is that our recent mining boom has left a lot of broken workers, families, communities and government coffers in its wake. Skype is cool and all, but it certainly can’t fix that.

 

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