The Stand.

Stories from UOW

Nick Skilton

Maintaining a healthy love life and personal life while managing a career in distance work raises numerous challenges for the transient workforce.

Mathew, a Sydneysider in his mid-40s, has what many consider a glamorous job but he is the first to admit it comes at a price.

He is an international commercial pilot with a high-profile carrier who on any roster can be kissing his wife and children goodbye at 6am and by nightfall collapsing into a lonely hotel bed halfway across the globe.

“I love my job, but after more than 20 years on long-haul I’m well aware it can wreak havoc on just about every aspect of life – from relationships to health,’’ says Mathew, who preferred not to be identified.

Fly in, fly out

Mathew perfectly fits the criteria of one of an army of statistically invisible workers in Australia, known as distance workers, which has been highlighted in an exploration of distance labour by University of Wollongong PhD student and human geographer, Nick Skilton.

His thesis focus has been to call out the dominance of the mining industry and the fly-in-fly-out (FIFO) story and why it captures the national imagination at the expense of the broader mobile workforce, who potentially face similar challenges of loneliness, isolation and depression.

I love my job, but after more than 20 years on long-haul I’m well aware it can wreak havoc on just about every aspect of life – from relationships to health..

Mathew, long-haul pilot

In doing so he uncovered a weakness in Census data collection that has unintentionally facilitated this marginalisation.

“Previous studies have set a minimum of 100 kilometres travel each way as enough to be called long-distance commuting, and while I don’t want to diminish what’s involved with that distance, I thought it fairer to extend the criteria to 400 kilometres one way and at least four nights away from home per month,’’ Nick says.

Nick Skilton

Long road: Nick Skilton’s PhD thesis investigated the army of statistically invisible workers in Australia. Photo: Paul Jones

It’s a numbers game

To quantify that invisible non-mining distance workforce, Nick’s first challenge was to unlock statistics buried deep in Census data. And he came up with some startling results.

“The most significant finding, I think, was the scale of how big this distance workforce is, particularly when you consider I only concentrated on major capital cities,” Nick says.

“It shows that distance workers can be found participating in every industry – including transport, manufacturing, health workers, sex workers and the arts – and yet, except for miners, are largely invisible with implications for how this labour is valued and understood in Australia.”

Manufacturing results are particularly interesting since it goes against our traditional understanding of manufacturing as a more localised industry.

Nick Skilton

The top three distance work industries in Australian capital cities by size were mining at 15.6 per cent, closely followed by transport, postal and warehousing at 13.2 per cent, and manufacturing at 12.7 per cent.

“Manufacturing results are particularly interesting since it goes against our traditional understanding of manufacturing as a more localised industry,” Nick says.

Cities like Perth and Brisbane topped the states for the biggest percentages of distance labour, partly due to their size and concentration of mining. A clear profile, however, could not be drawn from the data beyond the fact most are male and under 50.

Given this spread of industries, Nick’s question was why the FIFO miners’ story has become synonymous with distance labour when these figures show it is dwarfed by the other sectors combined.

“I think it’s got a lot to do with the fact that historically we’ve tended to put the mining industry on a pedestal,” Nick says.

Distance Labour Infographic

Wandering for work’s early beginnings

It started in the 1800s with the rogue workers in the gold rushes in Victoria who were a great source of anxiety for the middle and upper classes but who shaped the Australian larrikin hero who encapsulated mateship and rebellion against authority.

“Out of that grew an industrialised labour workforce and the large mining conglomerates who globally command huge economic and political power,’’ Nick says.

And he argues this mindset has been compounded by past and present Censuses that fail to fully capture the true picture of the distance labour phenomena beyond this narrow mining-centric base.

This, he contends, has implications for inquiries like one carried out by the Australian Productivity Commission in 2014 into the national significance of “Geographical Labour Mobility’.

“If identities such as non-mining distance workers can only be made visible through a dedicated geographical method and knowledge of specialist software I used (ABS TableBuilder Pro) then it’s likely they will remain invisible to labour policy makers,’’ Nick says.

“If Census is ‘enacting’ the world rather than merely ‘describing’ it, it is creating a world that renders non-mining distance labour unimportant.”

Nick Skilton

Human geographer Nick Skilton is interested in studying people in places. Photo: Paul Jones

What’s love got to do with it?

Pilot Mathew says while digital technology has vastly improved life for distance workers in terms of connecting with family and friends, “there are still loads of issues that need to be addressed’’.

He says people who work away from home not only have to deal with crushing separation but also the disruption it can bring to the family’s routine when the worker returns.

“The divorce rate in this industry is high but thankfully my wife and I have learned over time to live with the little niggles that arise over differences when I get home in, say, parenting techniques for example, but it still takes us about three days to settle back into a comfortable routine,’’ Mathew says.

“My problem these days though is more the impact distance work has on health. We’re constantly told in this industry to stay mentally and physically healthy. But that’s easier said than done when you have to live on restaurant food and convenience snacks during long stretches away.

“We’re short-staffed at the moment which means an extra week of flying a month and I’ve put on six kilos. As for exercise, that’s hard to fit in when you’re either flying or waiting around in airport lounges.”

We’re constantly told to stay mentally and physically healthy. That’s easier said than done when you have to live on restaurant food and convenience snacks during long stretches away.

Mathew, long-haul pilot

Loneliness and isolation, he says, has become manageable.

“The good thing about this industry is that the crews tend to socialise together and look out for each other. But not everybody has that. Distance labour is tough… My crew and I, especially on our way home from a week on the move, often laugh about the ‘glamour’ tag.

“Sure, it’s a good job with great pay but people have no idea what we go through to get it.”

Nick says it is for this reason he initially set out to also touch on how distance work challenges the traditional ideas of domesticity and family relationships.

“I’m a social geographer which is about studying people in places and I’m fascinated by relationships, particularly romantic relationships, in the non-hetero normative sphere.”

But his qualitative research proved impossible because accessing interviews with workers was too difficult.

“I was at first disappointed I couldn’t complete that initial vision but I had two fantastic supervisors, Professor Chris Gibson and Leah Gibbs (both from UOW’s School of Geography and Sustainable Communities), who helped me tell a different story, but one still worth telling,’’ Nick says.

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