Coronavirus restrictions stop FIFO workers from returning home

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Hundreds of FIFO workers across western and northern Australia are hunkering down for the COVID-19 pandemic to comply with strict new border restrictions instead of returning to their home states.

Key Points:

  • Rio Tinto has converted 42 FIFO roles into “residential for up to six months” at its Gove Operations
  • Currently there are about 10 interstate FIFO workers still employed at Rio’s NT site
  • FIFO exemptions are currently assessed and granted by the NT’s Chief Medical Officer

To limit interstate travel, companies including Newmont Australia, Glencore and Rio Tinto have taken steps to relocate FIFO workers to the same state as their mine site during the pandemic.

CFMEU NT organiser Kane Lowth said there were “of course” welfare concerns held for FIFO workers kept away from their regular homes throughout the pandemic.

“We have circumstances where people at particular places are actually moving whole families into those communities to try to get around the quarantining or the isolation,” Mr Lowth said.

“It’s a little bit of a mess at the moment.”

Newmont has secured hotel accommodation to house workers in Darwin, to allow greater freedom of movement for its FIFO staff travelling to its Granites gold mine in Central Australia.

“We have acted quickly to limit the numbers of our workforce who are coming from interstate,” Newmont Australia said in a statement.

“Some members of our workforce have elected to move to Darwin on a temporary basis, and after meeting NT Government quarantine requirements, will be free to commute to Newmont Tanami.”

Rio FIFO plan for hundreds of workers

Rio Tinto has also converted another 42 FIFO roles into “residential for up to six months” at its Gove Operations.

Minerals Council of Australia NT’s Drew Wagner said there were still “hundreds of FIFO workers flying from interstate for Territory work, under NT exemptions”.

On Monday Rio revealed it was moving 700 workers to Perth from interstate and overseas to help keep the company’s iron ore business afloat amid WA’s border lockdown.

Rio has also been making similar plans to maintain staff at its Weipa bauxite mine in Queensland.

Former long-term Gove Operations FIFO worker Ian Maclean said avoiding locally-based workers would be difficult.

“I don’t know how they wouldn’t mix with local workers, on the job anyway,” Mr Maclean said.

GEMCO, on Groote Eylandt, did not give specifics about how many interstate FIFO workers had been moved to the NT for the pandemic. There are now travel bans in place on the NT island.

Tougher restrictions flagged

It comes as the NT Government moves to do a “deeper dive” into FIFO entry regulations after a worker fell ill on the McArthur River mine site and had to be airlifted to Darwin.

Glencore, the mining company that runs McArthur River mine, did not confirm if the Territory-based worker had been interstate or overseas prior to starting his rostered shift at the site last week.

The worker eventually tested negative to COVID-19.

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NT Resources Minister Paul Kirby said the McArthur River scare had prompted the Government to reassess how FIFO exemptions were working.

“We certainly have had over the past week or so a negative case on one of our mine sites,” he said.

“That’s been the opportunity for us to go back to the Minerals Council and go back to all of our mines and reiterate to them to do a deeper dive on their COVID plans to make sure they have everything in place.

“Exemptions are only in place if people do have COVID plans in place.”

FIFO exemptions are currently assessed and granted by the NT’s Chief Medical Officer.

How do I get tested in the NT?

  • If you can’t contact or get to your GP, but you have the symptoms, you should call 1800 008 002
  • This is a dedicated NT-wide coronavirus (COVID-19) number for people who need to arrange testing only
  • If you live in Darwin and need to arrange testing, call the Public Health Unit on 8922 8044
  • Patients who are tested should remain isolated at home until they receive their test results
  • For general advice, Territorians can call 1800 020 080

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