The high FIFO divorce rate is a myth, but the challenges are a reality when families separate

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Mention FIFO in general conversation and invariably the topic of divorce and separation comes up. It seems almost everyone has an opinion about mining being bad for marriages - but what exactly is the reality? To uncover the facts and understand how separation and divorce affect FIFO families, here's experienced Perth family lawyer Catherine Leach...

There is a common misconception that the divorce rate among fly-in-fly-out (FIFO) workers is higher than the rest of the population. Although one study found that the rate of divorce after starting work in WA mining was 7 per cent for FIFO workers (as compared to 5 per cent of workers living in the city) this is still much less than the 30 per cent that's often suggested in the media. A 2009 study by Lindsay Greer at CQ University showed the divorce and separation rate at 11.26 per cent across all industries, and actually lower in mining at 11.15 per cent.

This tells me two things. Firstly, statistics can tell you anything you want to hear if you set the parameters of the question the 'right' way. But there are also clear indications that divorce is not the cancer of the resources industry that some headline-makers want us to believe. What's happening is misleading and fundamentally undermining to family structures when these horror stories are being painted as the norm.

It pleases me that the divorce rate is a myth in the FIFO sector, because FIFO clients have been among my nicest clients and they are usually very focused on what is best for their family. Perhaps that is why they undertake FIFO work in the first place – it certainly can’t be easy being away from family and friends for long periods of time. Relatively speaking, FIFO couples have amicable divorces in my experience. Perhaps their separate lives have given them some important lessons in communicating while apart, which puts them a step ahead.

Mediation

FIFO families might be no different in a statistical sense, but they certainly have different needs and challenges and family lawyers need to be sensitive to these. While mediation is compulsory for almost all divorces involving children (you can read more about the separation process here) there is mediation and then there is mediation! We encourage FIFO families to utilise a reputable mediation and counselling service to deal with the change. As Douja from Aresolution says, "FIFO families are particularly vulnerable to an imbalance of parenting roles". At Aresolution, the focus is on ensuring "that children continue to have meaningful relationships with both parents, despite work rosters that cause one parent to be more absent than the other". A good family lawyer will encourage this process and feed outcomes back into the legal arrangements being agreed.
 
Courts

The court is also increasingly sensitive to the FIFO lifestyle. They are used to dealing with various rosters and how FIFO work operates generally. An experienced family lawyer will always ask you for a copy of your roster and discuss with you the options available to assist your family to restructure after a separation. From my experience, I understand that communication is extremely important when parents are away from their children. I always discuss, and if applicable, make sure the court is aware of the availability of Skype, telephone calls and emails and get those arrangements set up as early as possible.

FIFO appears to be here to stay, but there are certainly challenges. Let’s just stop the FIFO bashing. If I was a wife and a mother in a FIFO family, I would hate to continually be surrounded by negative stories of high divorce rates, STDs and infidelity. Let’s stick to the facts. And if you’re a FIFO family facing the sad reality of divorce, work with a family lawyer who will support your family unit through the break up - not one who will jump on the bandwagon of FIFO bashing.

Catherine Leach has been working in family law for more than 20 years and is the director of Leach Legal in the Perth suburb of Wembley. She is currently finishing her Masters in Applied Law (Family Law) and practises Collaborative Law. A number of lawyers in Catherine's Perth-based firm, Leach Legal, have extensive experience in working with FIFO families. Call (08) 9387 4433 for a confidential chat or to make an appointment. You can chat for free to a family lawyer before you decide to engage them. www.leachlegal.com.au.