A short walk from Australia’s largest open-pit gold mine, 35-year-old driller Matt Brown swigs a beer in the Rock Inn Hotel and laments one of his biggest problems: “You get lonely,” he says of life in dusty Kalgoorlie, 600 kilometers (373 miles) from Perth, the capital of Western Australia. “Relationships are the hardest thing about mining.”
The heartache in places like Kalgoorlie and the Queensland coal town of Glenden, which has 23 bachelors in their 40s for each single woman, is a headache for companies like Rio Tinto Group that are trying to attract recruits. “It’s a wonderful life for many, but for many people there’s a crippling isolation,” says Gervase Greene, a Perth-based spokesman for Rio Tinto’s iron-ore operations.
To compensate, companies offer seven-hour, round-trip flights to cities every few weeks, satellite phones to connect miners with loved ones, and counseling. Employers will even fly in families for employees who keep mines going over the Christmas holiday. And, of course, pay is sky-high: Miners’ wages have risen 33 percent in the past five years in Australia, to A$2,113 ($2,222) a week, or more than double the national average, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. The higher labor expenses are raising expansion costs, Rio Tinto said in August after reporting a first-half profit that missed analyst estimates.
Despite the perks and pay, it’s still a rough life. Tim Douglas, a mining engineer with Macmahon Holdings, works eight-day stints at Rio Tinto’s Argyle Diamond Mine in the East Kimberley region, with six-day breaks in Perth, a 3½-hour flight away. “You’ve got to pretty much give up your life,” says Douglas, 24, who split up with his girlfriend in February. “A lot of my friends have been eyeing some quick cash in the mines, but it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.”
That makes it harder for Roger Edwards, managing director of Kalgoorlie-based Acorn Recruitment. He has 120 openings for electricians, welders, laborers, and drillers that pay as much as A$5,000 a week. “The only thing that can keep us going is getting people from elsewhere,”says Edwards, who supplies workers for BHP Billiton and the Super Pit, owned by Barrick Gold and Newmont Mining. “But the fly-in, fly-out workers destroy the community. They’re the ones who go crazy.”
A mile from the Super Pit, miners’ orange safety shirts glow through the windows of bars along Burt Street, many served by barmaids dressed only in black-lace underwear. Two blocks away, at the Langtrees brothel (prostitution is legal in Australia), the manager, who calls herself Dylan Delights, recruits from as far away as Ireland. “Just come and have some fun and make as much money as you can,” she says on the phone to a woman in Tasmania. “What was your name, sweetheart? My name’s Dylan. I’m the madam.”
Bernard Salt, a partner at KPMG in Melbourne, says the mining boom continues a history of gender isolation. “It’s a uniquely Australian issue,” says Salt, whose books include Man Drought and Other Social Issues of the New Century. Australian women, who once stayed in remote towns and married early, now add to the imbalance by moving to cities for work and school, he says.
When they get there, they find men in short supply. “I’ve got a bunch of single girlfriends and we’re looking, but we’ve been scratching our heads wondering where all the decent men are,” said Lara Iacusso, a 41-year-old former Deloitte corporate finance partner who moved to Sydney from Perth more than three years ago. “It’s definitely tough.”