The life of an international FIFO worker in Senegal

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By Larry in Senegal

You often hear stories about Australian FIFO workers who spend two, three or maybe four weeks in remote locations before travelling back to their homes and families.

The stories tell of the struggle these workers have when they're away from their loved ones - and there is no doubting the reality of this. Rarely though, do we hear about the difficulties of the actual 'job' for Aussies who work FIFO overseas.

Though I've had some exposure to Australian mining operations, my main experiences have been in Papua New Guinea, Laos and currently Senegal, West Africa. My role is the type that is often referred to by the operational staff as support or 'non-essential'. Simply put, I am an office worker and get to spend much of the 48 to 54 degree days in my air-conditioned office, while my colleagues walk the pit or work in and around SAG mills, CIL tanks and conveyor systems. 

The life of an international FIFO worker has challenges that in many cases can only be understood by someone who has experienced the life.

Our roster of eight weeks on and four weeks off appears to be fairly standard for this part of the world, though I still speak to people in other African locations who do rosters that would make ours look quite desirable. When it comes time to travel back home to my family, the trip is 40 hours from start to finish. (The average commute from my mine site is around 8-10 hours.)

Our mine site is home to people from 22 countries. In Senegal, French is the 'educated' language, though for many of our employees and contract partners it is still their second, third or fourth language. More than 75 per cent of the locals can speak enough French to get by, but a far smaller percentage are able to read or write the language. About 30 per cent of expats speak French well, and the rest can string a few words together to get their message across. The language barrier is one of the main difficulties. We also find that the majority of our staff hired from around the mine site come from a background of either subsistence farming or mining, and as such have low education and skill levels.

Proudly, our company is the first (and only) operational gold mine in Senegal. As good as this is, it brings additional hardships as our Senegalese hosts have little or no experience with large-scale mining. What this does do, though, is allow us to become an integral part of the development of our Senegalese staff to the various practices and processes required to operate a remote mine site such as ours to an international standard.

Simply put, many of us who work in a foreign country struggle with the following issues:

  • remote locations
  • long rosters
  • huge and varying language barriers
  • skill and knowledge limitations among staff
  • long lead times for parts etc.
  • roles must always be tempered by cultural consideration
  • there are only ever two seasons: dry (and hot) and wet (and hot)
  • higher risk of illnesses such as malaria
  • political unrest from many of the countries that surround us
  • huge time differences for communicating with our families (when it's day here it is night for my family)
  • we miss many milestones in our families' lives
  • travel time to and from work/home is measured in days, not hours

If I could, would I change this life to become an Australian-based FIFO worker, or (perish the thought) work a 9-5, Monday to Friday job?

Hell no! As long as my family supports me, the international FIFO life will continue to be for me…