FIFO crimewave exaggerated, UNE sociologist argues

Published 29 June 2012

Fear of crime in rural mining communities serviced by fly-in fly-out workers far outstrips the reality, a University of New England researcher has found.

In a paper published recently by the Sociologia Ruralis, UNE sociologist John Scott argues that an atmosphere approaching “moral panic” has settled on some mining towns, and that FIFO workers have become a convenient scapegoat upon which to blame all crime, in much the same way Indigenous people are blamed in other communities.

Dr Scott and Kerry Carrington from Queensland University of Technology visited mining regions in Western Australia and Queensland  interviewing local residents as part of an ARC-funded study into male violence in rural communities. What they found, Dr Scott said, was intriguing.

“Typically when you go into a rural community and interview the white population, they tend to see crime in general, and violent crime in particular, as an Indigenous problem,” Dr Scott said.

“Statistically, we know this isn’t the case. Violence is a community-wide issue and by no means confined to one particular group.

“What was interesting was that in these communities there were very few Indigenous people. They made up less than 3 per cent of the population. So instead of blaming the Indigenous community for crime, the locals blamed the FIFOs.”

“They told us things like, the FIFOs are dirty, they drink too much, they’re lazy – even that they’re responsible for all the litter in the town, ” Dr Scott said. “There were wild rumours floating around, like ‘one of them killed somebody’ or ‘they sell their wives for sex.’ None of this was backed by any evidence. In fact, despite a rising population and a decrease in social integration, official crime rates in these areas have remained stable or even dropped.”

The FIFO has become a “condensation symbol”, Dr Scott argues – a convenient scapegoat for the community’s ills.

“It’s like the old Blue Heelers episode. The guy comes into the community from outside and commits crime. It’s never the locals, always the outsider.”

Although fears of a FIFO-led crime wave were highly problematic, Dr Scott said, that did not mean the FIFO phenomenon had not brought with it considerable social challenges for the communities in which they operate.

“We do see that having large numbers of fly-in fly-out workers can put a strain on local services and that despite the high wages these workers are getting, not enough of that money is flowing into the local community. There are definitely legitimate issues out there. It’s just that rising crime rates are not necessarily one of them.”

In a discussion paper to be published next month, Dr Scott argues that similar fears fly-in fly-out sex workers servicing mining communities have led to an increase in sexually transmitted infections are likewise not borne out by the evidence.

Media contact: Dr John Scott (0467 733 452) or Leon Braun, UNE public relations (02 6773 3771).