The pronounced cyclical character of resources booms has directed attention to certain features of the current mining boom– its scale, duration, and impacts on the balance of trade and other sectors of the national economy - and diverted attention from others. According to the US economist, Robert Reich, capitalism is currently undergoing a mutation: from the age of democratic capitalism to what he calls 'supercapitalism'. This involves a transformation in which economic power progressively invades every domain of life, empowering people as economic actors (investors, consumers), whilst weakening forms of collective life, citizenship and public institutions. Arguably the resources sector is presently operating at the frontier of supercapitalism's transformative reach over Australia's economy, society, and politics.
One of the most conspicuous features of the current mining boom is the rapidly expanding reliance on a non-resident fly-in/fly-out (FIFO) or drive-in/drive-out (DIDO) workforce. Although predominantly sourced from within Australia at present, the trend and industry pressure is towards a growing reliance on imported labour. With the quite rapid expansion of the 457 visa this trend is pronounced in, but far from confined to, the resources sector. The rise of a mobile mining workforce is in turn related to the intensification of the production process, the growth of contract labour at the expense of traditional employment relationships and concerted efforts to minimize the intrusion of extraneous, non-economic factors on productivity: like the human solidarities and commitments arising from family, community, trade union membership and so on.
In the past, townships and communities went hand in hand with mining development. However, since the 1980s, and under the growing influence of global economic forces, mining companies have moved progressively to an expeditionary strategy for natural resources extraction. Non-resident, contract work forces, typically work block rosters (seven days on, seven days off is common), reside in work camps adjacent to existing communities and travel large distances from their homes. This new regime of resource extraction operates a continuous production cycle involving 12 hour shifts alternating day and night with each roster cycle. Post-industrial mining regimes take neo-liberal logic to an extreme, one perhaps encapsulated in the figure of the fly in, fly out worker – contracted, non-unionised, with bulging pay packet, compressed work roster, fragile job security and truncated family and community life.
This also carries major implications for the sustainability of traditional regional communities at the frontier of resource extraction. Where communities are overnight made to play host to perhaps thousands of transient workers living in work camps on their fringes there can be huge impacts on quality of life (including housing affordability, infrastructure, services and amenity). Tensions between residents and non-resident workers are fuelled where so many of the benefits 'fly-over' the very communities that are bearing the major social and economic burdens of resource developments. There are also significant concerns in relation to the impact on the long term health and well-being of non-resident workers and their families.
More flexible work arrangements are part of a larger global trend in the pattern of employment in a post-industrial world. In crude terms, the resources sector has been at the forefront of a trend to encourage the trading of rights, security and conditions for high wages. A longer term, more holistic, view of the role of work in relation to well-being, personal identity, family and community is giving way to a narrower, shorter term focus on immediate economic benefits. Precarious work practices may have a range of diffuse, often adverse, social consequences for individuals and communities, even if work is generously rewarded. The problem is that these regimes, by their very nature, occlude recognition of these wider, longer term consequences because they emasculate the forms of collective representation (communities, trade unions) through which such consequence have traditionally been registered.
There is also evidence that governments who bear the responsibility to safeguard collective well-being are cowered by the sector and have substantially abdicated their responsibility to regulate the mining industry, compelling compliance with laws and standards that safeguard the long term public interest. Paul Cleary, in his two recent books on the mining boom (Too Much Luck (2011) and Minefield: The dark side of Australia's Resources Rush (2012)) points to the DIY character of much regulation. Environmental impact statements are left to companies and a growing corps of freelance consultants in their pay. Social impacts are largely ignored. There is also a paucity of independent, transparent monitoring of industry practices by state regulatory agencies.
It is clear that any regard for the overall social and environmental impacts of the mining boom are being subjugated to short term economic considerations, primarily those of industry profits and state governments greedy to get their hands on mining royalties. In particular, although projects are proliferating with impacts across the country, there is no effective mechanism for assessing cumulative environmental, social or economic impacts even in the short, let alone the long, term. Also, little regard is given to the impact on economic diversification, despite its importance for the long-term prosperity of localities, regions and the national economy.
The benefits of the boom are coming at the expense of a hollowing out of communities and institutions. Private corporations seeking to maximise their share price and their competitive position on the global stage cannot be relied upon to weigh these considerations. They lack the expertise, let alone the incentive, to do so. It is the job of government to reflect and safeguard the public interest and compel adherence to it. The oxymoron of corporate social responsibility simultaneously masks the private self-interest driving corporate sector demands for deregulation whilst diverting public institutions from their core responsibilities
According to the Federal Government's principal advisor on the mining sector, the mining boom has not ended and is not about to end. Rather, one phase of the boom, the price boom, in which record commodity prices delivered record company profits, is giving way to another phase, the volume boom. This shift has seen a few projects shelved, but with only a limited impact on the overall investment pipeline. The principal response of mining peak bodies and executives has been to launch ever louder complaints about declining productivity and the high cost of doing business in Australia. Meanwhile, the social costs of the supercapitalist trends described above are likely to intensify – the subjugation of social to economic considerations, the long term to the short term, the public interest to private corporate interests.