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Lovelorn miners find job is the pits

Despite the huge wages, mines struggle to attract workers due to the locations and lonely lifestyle, writes Angus Whitley.

Despite the huge wages, mines struggle to attract workers due to the locations and lonely lifestyle, writes Angus Whitley.

Ten minutes' walk from the country's largest open-pit gold mine, 35-year-old driller Matt Brown swigs a beer in the bar of the Rock Inn Hotel and laments one of the biggest problems of the mining boom: a shortage of girlfriends.

"You get lonely," Brown, who explores for gold and iron ore with Westralian Diamond Drillers in the dust-coated town of Kalgoorlie, 600 kilometres from Perth, says. "Relationships are the hardest thing about mining."

The heartache in places like Kalgoorlie and the Queensland coal town of Glenden, where there are 23 unmarried men in their 40s for each single woman, is a headache for companies such as Rio Tinto which are are trying to attract workers.

The biggest commodities boom since the 1850s gold rush has sapped the supply of Australians willing to adopt Brown's lifestyle, even with wages that are double the national average.

To persuade workers to join, companies offer extras such as seven-hour, round-trip flights to cities every few weeks, satellite phones to keep miners connected with loved ones, counselling services and even flying in families for employees who keep mines going over the Christmas holidays.

"It's a wonderful life for many people, but for many other people there's a crippling isolation," Gervase Greene, a Perth-based spokesman for Rio Tinto's iron-ore operations, said. "You've got to think outside the square to access workers and keep them in the workforce. There's still a labour shortage."

Higher labour expenses are raising expansion costs, Rio Tinto, the world's second-largest mining company, said after reporting its first-half profit last month. The company's workforce more than doubled in five years to 76,894 at the end of 2010. The country's unemployment rate was 5.1 per cent in July, almost half that of the US, Bloomberg data shows.

Rising wages are feeding inflation, forcing the Reserve Bank to keep its benchmark interest rate at 4.75 per cent, the highest in the developed world, even as domestic spending slows.

Miners' wages have risen 33 per cent in the past five years, to $2113 a week, or more than double the national average, according to data released two weeks ago by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. That's almost twice as much as miners in the US, who are paid an average of $1236 a week.

The Reserve Bank said "the widespread increase in cost pressures" was a threat to inflation, in the minutes of last month's meeting.

"It's not just a threat to inflation, it's a threat to business," Nigel Stapledon, a lecturer at the University of NSW's Australian School of Business, said. "What happens in mining feeds through to costs in all sectors."

The difficulty in holding down a relationship is one factor driving demands for further pay rises in mining, Stephen Smyth, a president in the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, said.

Tim Douglas, a mining engineer with Macmahon Holdings, said his job is incompatible with a long-term relationship. He works eight-day stints at Rio Tinto's Argyle Diamond Mine in the East Kimberley region with six-day breaks in Perth, a 3?-hour flight away.

"You've got to pretty much give up your life," Douglas, 24, who split up with his girlfriend in February, said. "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's making it harder for Roger Edwards, the managing director of Acorn Recruitment in Kalgoorlie, to fill vacancies.

He has 120 roles open for electricians, welders, labourers and drillers paying as much as $5000 a week, and just 14 tradesmen in town qualified to do the work, he said. There may be a shortfall of 35,800 tradesmen by 2015 on resources projects, the National Resources Sector Employment Taskforce said in a 2010 report.

"The only thing that can keep us going is getting people from elsewhere," Edwards, who supplies workers for BHP and the nearby Super Pit, owned by Barrick Gold and Newmont Mining, said. "But the fly-in, fly-out workers destroy the community. They're the ones who go crazy. The number of breakups we see is unbelievable."

Kelly Quirke, a BHP spokeswoman, said the company wouldn't comment on what it's doing to attract workers.

A mile from the Super Pit, miners' fluorescent-orange safety shirts glow through the windows of bars along Burt Street, many served by barmaids dressed only in underwear.

Edwards isn't the only one struggling to get workers. Two blocks away, at Langtrees brothel, the manager, who calls herself Dylan Delights, is drafting in staff from as far as Ireland and New Zealand.

"Just come and have some fun and make as much money as you can," she said on the phone to a woman in Tasmania. "What was your name, sweetheart? My name's Dylan. I'm the madam."

Most clients are miners and many are married or in a relationship, Dylan said, sucking on a cigarette. An hour with a girl costs $350 and a prostitute with as many as six customers a night can earn $10,000 a week, Dylan, 23, said.

Some miners turn to the internet to find a partner. Web matchmaker has identified "love hotspots", with mining towns such as Mount Isa atop the list.

RSVP, Australia's largest online dating service, said 14 per cent more users signed up in the past 12 months, taking its clients to 1.8 million. In Kalgoorlie, the number jumped 76 per cent.

Bernard Salt, the well-known demographer and a partner at KPMG, said the mining boom is exacerbating a history of gender isolation in Australia. The mining industry employed 214,000 workers as of May, government data shows, 86 per cent of them men.

"It's a uniquely Australian issue," Salt, whose books include Man Drought and Other Social Issues of the New Century, said

Women, who a generation ago tended to stay in remoter towns and marry in their early 20s, are adding to the imbalance by moving to cities for work and education, he said.

When they get there, they find a shortage of men. "I've got a bunch of single girlfriends and we're out there looking, but we've been scratching our heads wondering where all the decent men are," Lara Iacusso, a 41-year-old former Deloitte corporate-finance partner, who moved to Sydney from Perth more than three years ago, said.

"It's definitely tough."

Brett Gilbert, a chef at Fortescue Metals Group's Solomon iron ore project, plans to publish a book this year, The Fly-In Fly-Out Bachelor: A FIFO Bachelor's Guide to Success with Women, after overcoming his own depression. "This whole industry is plagued with guys who probably want to be more successful with women," Gilbert said.

At the Rock Inn Hotel, and without a girlfriend after two years in Kalgoorlie, Brown comforts himself with his pay packet. "For a lot of us, it's the money. If you want to work, there's a job here for you."

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